In studies of anxiety and other affective disorders, objectively measured physiological responses have commonly been used as a proxy for measuring subjective experiences associated with pathology. However, this commonly adopted "biosignal" approach has recently been called into question on the grounds that subjective experiences and objective physiological responses may dissociate. We performed machine-learning based analysis on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data to assess this issue in the case of fear. Participants were presented with pictures of commonly feared animals in an fMRI experiment. Multivoxel brain activity decoders were trained to predict participants' subjective fear ratings and their skin conductance reactivity, respectively. While subjective fear and objective physiological responses were correlated in general, the respective whole-brain multivoxel decoders for the two measures were not identical. Some key brain regions such as the amygdala and insula appear to be primarily involved in the prediction of physiological reactivity, while some regions previously associated with metacognition and conscious perception, including some areas in the prefrontal cortex, appear to be primarily predictive of the subjective experience of fear. The present findings are in support of the recent call for caution in assuming a one-to-one mapping between subjective sufferings and their putative biosignals, despite the clear advantages in the latter's being objectively and continuously measurable in physiological terms.
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