Awareness is required for autonomic performance monitoring in instrumental learning: evidence from cardiac activity

Skora, Lina I, Livermore, James J A, Nisini, Federica and Scott, Ryan B (2022) Awareness is required for autonomic performance monitoring in instrumental learning: evidence from cardiac activity. Psychophysiology. a14047 1-14. ISSN 0048-5772

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Performance monitoring is a vital aspect of successful learning and decision-making. Performance errors are reflected in the autonomic nervous system, indicating the need for behavioral adjustment. As part of this response, errors cause a pronounced deceleration in heart rate, compared to correct decisions, and precede explicit awareness of stimulus–response outcome contingencies. However, it is unknown whether those signals are present and able to inform instrumental learning without stimulus awareness, where explicit performance monitoring is disabled. With mixed evidence for unconscious instrumental learning, determining the presence or absence of autonomic signatures of performance monitoring can shed light on its feasibility. Here, we employed an unconscious instrumental conditioning task, where successful learning is evidenced by increased approach responses to visually masked rewarding stimuli, and avoidance of punishing stimuli. An electrocardiogram (ECG) assessed cardiac activity throughout the learning process. Natural fluctuations of awareness under masking permitted us to contrast learning and cardiac deceleration for trials with, versus without, conscious stimulus awareness. Our results demonstrate that on trials where participants did not consciously perceive the stimulus, there was no differentiation in cardiac response between rewarding and punishing feedback, indicating an absence of performance monitoring. In contrast, consciously perceived stimuli elicited the expected error-related deceleration. This result suggests that, in unconscious instrumental learning, the brain might be unable to acquire knowledge of stimulus values to guide correct instrumental choices. This evidence provides support for the notion that consciousness might be required for flexible adaptive behavior, and that this may be mediated through bodily signals.

Item Type: Article
Schools and Departments: School of Psychology > Psychology
SWORD Depositor: Mx Elements Account
Depositing User: Mx Elements Account
Date Deposited: 08 Mar 2022 07:51
Last Modified: 11 Apr 2022 15:30

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