The human amygdala: an evolved system for relevance detection

Rev Neurosci. 2003;14(4):303-16. doi: 10.1515/revneuro.2003.14.4.303.


Evidence from pioneering animal research has suggested that the amygdala is involved in the processing of aversive stimuli, particularly fear-related information. Fear is central in the evolution of the mammalian brain: it is automatically and rapidly elicited by potentially dangerous and deadly events. The view that the amygdala shares the main characteristics of modular systems, e.g. domain specificity, automaticity, and cognitive impenetrability, has become popular in neuroscience. Because of its computational properties, it has been proposed to implement a rapid-response 'fear module'. In this article, we review recent patient and neuroimaging data of the human brain and argue that the fundamental criteria for the amygdala to be a modular system are not met. We propose a different computational view and suggest the notion of a specific involvement of the human amygdala in the appraisal of relevant events that include, but are not restricted to, fear-related stimuli. Considering the amygdala as a 'relevance detector' would integrate the 'fear module' hypothesis with the concept of an evolved neural system devoted to the processing of a broader category of biologically relevant stimuli. In primates, socially relevant events appear to have become, through evolution, the dominant elements of the amygdala's domain of specificity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Computers
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Mental Processes / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Signal Detection, Psychological
  • Systems Theory