Effects of Learning on Somatosensory Decision-Making and Experiences

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Operant conditioning has been shown to influence perceptual decision making in the auditory and visual modalities but the effects of conditioning on touch perception are unknown. If conditioning can be used to reduce the tendency to misinterpret somatic noise as signal (tactile false alarms), there may be the potential to use similar procedures in the treatment of excessive physical symptom reporting in clinical settings. We explored this possibility in 4 experiments investigating whether the false alarm (FA) rate in a somatic signal detection task (SSDT) could be altered with operant conditioning, and whether the resultant learning would transfer to other sensory decisions. In Experiments 1a and 2a, nonclinical participants were rewarded for hits and punished for misses on the SSDT, with a view to increasing their FA rate. In Experiments 1b and 2b, participants were rewarded for correct rejections and punished for FAs, with a view to decreasing their FA rate. Control participants received no treatment in Experiments 1a and 1b and underwent sham training in Experiments 2a and 2b. As predicted, operant conditioning increased (Experiments 1a, 2a) and decreased (Experiments 1b, 2b) FAs on the SSDT. Training effects did not transfer to an unrelated somatosensory task and there was only weak evidence for transfer to an auditory task in Experiment 2a. Auditory and tactile FAs correlated positively in the baseline phase. The results indicate that the tactile FA rate is trainable, but that the conditioning effect does not transfer across sensory decisions with this brief training paradigm.

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