Emotion and cognition and the amygdala: from "what is it?" to "what's to be done?"

Neuropsychologia. 2010 Oct;48(12):3416-29. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.06.038. Epub 2010 Jul 7.


The amygdala is a fascinating, complex structure that lies at the center of much of our current thinking about emotion. Here, I will review data that suggest that the amygdala is involved in several processes linked to determining what a stimulus is and what the organism should therefore do - the two questions that are part of the title. This piece will focus on three main aspects of amygdala function, namely attention, value representation, and decision making, by reviewing both non-human and human data. Two mechanisms of affective attention will be described. The first involves projections from the central nucleus of the amygdala to the basal forebrain, which has extensive and diffuse projections throughout the cortical mantle. The second involves projections from the basal amygdala to multiple levels across the visual cortex. I will also describe how the basolateral amygdala is important for the representation of value and in decision making. Overall, it will be argued that the amygdala plays a key role in solving the following problem: How can a limited-capacity information processing system that receives a constant stream of diverse inputs be designed to selectively process those inputs that are most significant to the objectives of the system? "What is it?" and "What's to be done?" processes can then be viewed as important building blocks in the construction of emotion, a process that is intertwined with cognition. Furthermore, answering the two questions directs how resources should be mobilized as the organism seeks out additional information from the environment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / anatomy & histology
  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Humans