Social transmission of threat information by observation is effective in humans and other animals. However, it is unknown if such observation of others’ reacting to threats can retrieve memories that have been previously learned through direct, firsthand aversive experiences. Here, we show concordantly in humans and rats that observing a conspecific’s reactions to a threat is sufficient to recover associative memories of direct, firsthand aversive experiences, measured as conditioned threat responses (physiological responses and defensive behavior) in the observer. The reinstatement of threat responses by observation of others is specific to the context that is observed as being dangerous. Our findings provide cross-species evidence that observation of others’ threat reactions can recover associative memories of direct, firsthand aversive experiences.Abstract
Information about dangers can spread effectively by observation of others’ threat responses. Yet, it is unclear if such observational threat information interacts with associative memories that are shaped by the individual’s direct, firsthand experiences. Here, we show in humans and rats that the mere observation of a conspecific’s threat reactions reinstates previously learned and extinguished threat responses in the observer. In two experiments, human participants displayed elevated physiological responses to threat-conditioned cues after observational reinstatement in a context-specific manner. The elevation of physiological responses (arousal) was further specific to the context that was observed as dangerous. An analogous experiment in rats provided converging results by demonstrating reinstatement of defensive behavior after observing another rat’s threat reactions. Taken together, our findings provide cross-species evidence that observation of others’ threat reactions can recover associations previously shaped by direct, firsthand aversive experiences. Our study offers a perspective on how retrieval of threat memories draws from associative mechanisms that might underlie both observations of others’ and firsthand experiences.