Editors' ChoiceLEARNING

Keep calm…and learn

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Science Translational Medicine  09 Jan 2019:
Vol. 11, Issue 474, eaaw0531
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aaw0531


Social anxiety disrupts optimal learning patterns and brain activity in threatening situations.

Different psychological models tried to explain how animals adapt their behavior upon feedback from the environment. These models suggest that when the environment is highly surprising, learning happens more quickly, allowing for expectations to be updated rapidly. It is not known whether individuals with high social anxiety show differences in learning in surprising social situations. The present study tested learning performance in 44 healthy women who completed a social anxiety self-assessment. Participants completed a task that paired emotional faces (happy or angry) with either monetary reward or punishment at differing probabilities during functional MRI. Participants learned to increase their chances of rewards and avoid punishments through pressing or withholding a button response. Different learning models were tested to assess participants’ choices. All participants demonstrated learning; when associations reversed, after an initial period of performance at chance, the participants slowly learned the new association. Participants with high social anxiety had less of a dynamic strategy to adjust their learning on trials with angry faces compared with those with low social anxiety. There were no differences for learning to happy faces and social anxiety. Activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate (dACC) correlated with learning rates, and individual differences in social anxiety were associated with learning activity in the dACC to angry faces. The data suggests that individuals with high social anxiety demonstrated less adaptive learning in surprising situations toward threatening social cues, indicative of maladaptive strategies during social situations. Future work exploring whether individuals with a diagnosis of social anxiety, as well as whether males with high social anxiety show the same challenges with learning in threatening scenarios, will illuminate the robustness of these findings. The data provides compelling evidence that interventions that focus on changing learning styles may be a critical target to reduce social anxiety in certain individuals.

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