The hippocampus is widely believed to be essential for learning about the context in which conditioning occurs. This view is based primarily on evidence that lesions of the dorsal hippocampus disrupt freezing to contextual cues after fear conditioning. However, lesions that disrupt freezing produce no effect on fear-potentiated startle, a second measure of contextual fear. Moreover, hippocampal lesions also do not disrupt the contextual 'blocking' phenomenon, which provides an indirect measure of contextual fear. In these paradigms, at least, it appears that hippocampal lesions disrupt the expression of freezing, rather than contextual fear itself. This interpretation is supported by the finding that rats showing preserved contextual blocking after hippocampal lesions show deficits not only in contextual freezing, but also in unconditioned freezing. These findings are consistent with a growing body of data from other conditioning paradigms that contextual learning is spared after lesions of the dorsal hippocampus. Nonetheless, there remain some reports of impaired contextual fear conditioning after hippocampal lesions that cannot be attributed easily to a disruption of freezing. Thus, it is concluded that the hippocampus may be involved in contextual learning under certain - as yet, unspecified - circumstances, but is not critical for contextual learning in general. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.