Fear Imagery and the Startle-Probe Reflex

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Blink reflexes to acoustic probes, heart rate, and subjective reports were studied during affective memory imagery. Thirty-six undergraduates memorized 6 pairs of neutral and fearful sentences. After learning each pair, they relaxed and listened to a series of uniform tones, one every 6 s. A change in tone pitch (higher or lower) cued recall of one of the two sentences. At the first cue tone, groups (n = 12) were under different instructions: (a) ignore the sentence and relax, (b) silently articulate the sentence, and (c) imagine the sentence content as a personal experience. At the second cue tone, all subjects performed the imagery task. Startle probes (50-ms, 95-dB white noise) were presented unpredictably during relaxation and recall trials. Probe blink reflexes were larger and cardiac rate faster at fear sentence recall than at neutral sentence recall or relaxation. For probe reflexes, this effect was greater for imagery than for nonsemantic recall tasks.

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