Neurobiological studies demonstrate the amygdala's role in emotional memory, and psychological studies suggest a particular pattern: enhanced memory for the gist but not the details of complex stimuli. We hypothesized that these two findings are related. Whereas normal (n = 52) and brain-damaged (n = 22) controls showed the expected enhancement of gist memory when the encoding context was emotional, persons with unilateral damage to the medial temporal lobe including the amygdala (n = 16) did not show this pattern. Furthermore, amygdala volume showed a significant positive correlation with gist memory but not with overall memory. A further study in four subjects with selective medial temporal damage sparing the amygdala, and one with selective damage confined to the amygdala, confirmed the specificity of this effect to the amygdala. The data support a model whereby the amygdala focuses processing resources on gist, possibly accounting for features of traumatic memories and eyewitness testimony in real life.