Fear memories are characterized by their permanence and a fierce resistance to unlearning by new experiences. We considered whether this durability involves a process of memory segmentation that separates competing experiences. To address this question, we used an emotional-learning task designed to measure recognition memory for category exemplars encoded during competing experiences of fear conditioning and extinction. Here, we show that people recognized more fear-conditioned exemplars encoded during conditioning than conceptually related exemplars encoded immediately after a perceptual event boundary that separates conditioning from extinction. Selective episodic memory depended on a period of consolidation, an explicit break between competing experiences, and was unrelated to within-session arousal or the explicit realization of a transition from conditioning to extinction. Collectively, these findings suggest that event boundaries guide selective consolidation to prioritize emotional information in memory - at the expense of related but conflicting information experienced shortly thereafter. We put forward a model whereby event boundaries bifurcate related memory traces for incompatible experiences. This is in contrast to a mechanism that integrates related experiences for adaptive generalization 1-3, and reveals a potentially distinct organization by which competing memories are adaptively segmented to select and protect nascent fear memories from immediate sources of interference.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Social Psychology
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
- Behavioral Neuroscience