The Neural Mechanisms Underlying Affect Sharing in Vicarious Fear Learning


  • Sara Kubale University of Ljubljana


Recognizing potential dangers in the environment is essential for survival, prompting social species to employ both direct and vicarious cues for learning about threats. Vicarious fear learning, where individuals acquire knowledge about dangers by observing others, is therefore of significant importance.

Numerous studies have explored the diverse array of factors influencing the efficacy of vicarious fear learning. One crucial mechanism highlighted in a recent study is affect sharing – a fundamental aspect of empathy, involving the partial re-experiencing of another person’s emotions [1]. This research demonstrated that individuals induced into different empathic states via hypnotic suggestions during vicarious Pavlovian fear conditioning exhibit variations in efficiency of fear learning [1]. Building on this preliminary evidence highlighting the role of empathy in vicarious learning, a recent replication study focused on investigating the neural mechanisms underlying the different states of empathy during fear learning [2, 3].  

The aim of the current investigation is to conduct additional analyses on the data collected by [2] to investigate empathy-related changes in brain functional connectivity. While extensive research has investigated neural activity and connectivity underlying empathy, less is known about how these processes differ across varying levels of empathy—specifically, between high affect sharing states and low affect sharing states. Due to the activation of brain regions such as the anterior cingulate cortices (ACC) and the bilateral anterior insula (AI) in vicarious fear learning, which form part of a well-established network associated with empathy for pain [3], we decided to focus our analysis on the ACC.


The study is a part of a bigger project for which the fMRI data together with skin conductance response and post-experimental survey has already been collected [2, 3]. Participants underwent vicarious Pavlovian fear conditioning in an MRI scanner. Data from 44 participants involved in the main experiment will be analysed for this study.

Expected results

Supporting existing literature on the ACC's role in integrating emotional experiences, we hypothesize that there will be greater connectivity of networks with the network including the ACC during high affect sharing compared to the low affect sharing state in the learning phases of the paradigm. Utilizing fMRI data analysis, the study aims to confirm this hypothesis by assessing connectivity patterns between the ACC and other networks under both conditions. Overall, this study contributes to understanding empathy and its underlying network connectivity in vicarious fear learning, potentially guiding future research and cross-species comparisons.


[1] A. Müllner-Huber et al., “The causal role of affect sharing in driving vicarious fear learning,” PLOS ONE, vol. 17, no. 11, Nov. 2022.

[2] Müllner-Huber A, Stöffel T, Olsson A, Lamm C., “The causal role of affect sharing in observational fear learning: A preregistered fMRI study using hypnotic suggestions,” presented at the ESCAN Conf., Vienna, Jul. 2022, 19-22.

[3] T. Stöffel, “The effect of hypnotically modulated affect sharing on observational fear conditioning: a concurrent SCR and fMRI investigation,” M. S. thesis, Univ. of Vienna, Vienna, Austria, 2022.