Pavlovian conditioning–induced hallucinations result from overweighting of perceptual priors

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Science  11 Aug 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6351, pp. 596-600
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan3458

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Neural mechanisms for hallucinations

Pairing a stimulus in one modality (vision) with a stimulus in another (sound) can lead to task-induced hallucinations in healthy individuals. After many trials, people eventually report perceiving a nonexistent stimulus contingent on the presence of the previously paired stimulus. Powers et al. investigated how different groups of volunteers and patients respond to this conditioning paradigm. They used behavior, neuroimaging, and computational modeling to dissect the effect of perceptual priors versus sensory evidence on such induced hallucinations. People who are more prone to hear voices were more susceptible to the induced auditory hallucinations. The network of brain regions that was active during the conditioned hallucinations resembled the network observed during clinical symptom capture in individuals who hallucinate while in a brain scanner.

Science, this issue p. 596


Some people hear voices that others do not, but only some of those people seek treatment. Using a Pavlovian learning task, we induced conditioned hallucinations in four groups of people who differed orthogonally in their voice-hearing and treatment-seeking statuses. People who hear voices were significantly more susceptible to the effect. Using functional neuroimaging and computational modeling of perception, we identified processes that differentiated voice-hearers from non–voice-hearers and treatment-seekers from non–treatment-seekers and characterized a brain circuit that mediated the conditioned hallucinations. These data demonstrate the profound and sometimes pathological impact of top-down cognitive processes on perception and may represent an objective means to discern people with a need for treatment from those without.

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