The amygdala and decision-making

Neuropsychologia. 2011 Mar;49(4):760-6. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.09.029. Epub 2010 Oct 8.


Decision-making is a complex process that requires the orchestration of multiple neural systems. For example, decision-making is believed to involve areas of the brain involved in emotion (e.g., amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex) and memory (e.g., hippocampus, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex). In this article, we will present findings related to the amygdala's role in decision-making, and differentiate the contributions of the amygdala from those of other structurally and functionally connected neural regions. Decades of research have shown that the amygdala is involved in associating a stimulus with its emotional value. This tradition has been extended in newer work, which has shown that the amygdala is especially important for decision-making, by triggering autonomic responses to emotional stimuli, including monetary reward and punishment. Patients with amygdala damage lack these autonomic responses to reward and punishment, and consequently, cannot utilize "somatic marker" type cues to guide future decision-making. Studies using laboratory decision-making tests have found deficient decision-making in patients with bilateral amygdala damage, which resembles their real-world difficulties with decision-making. Additionally, we have found evidence for an interaction between sex and laterality of amygdala functioning, such that unilateral damage to the right amygdala results in greater deficits in decision-making and social behavior in men, while left amygdala damage seems to be more detrimental for women. We have posited that the amygdala is part of an "impulsive," habit type system that triggers emotional responses to immediate outcomes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Choice Behavior
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sex Factors