Letters to Nature

Nature 411, 305-309 (17 May 2001) | doi:10.1038/35077083; Received 19 January 2001; Accepted 16 March 2001

Lesions of the human amygdala impair enhanced perception of emotionally salient events

Adam K. Anderson1,2 & Elizabeth A. Phelps3

  1. Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06520, USA
  2. Department of Psychology, New York University, New York, New York 10003, USA
  3. Present address: Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Jordan Hall, Building 420, Stanford, California 94305-2130, USA

Correspondence to: Adam K. Anderson1,2 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to A.K.A. (e-mail: Email: adam.k.anderson@stanford.edu).

Commensurate with the importance of rapidly and efficiently evaluating motivationally significant stimuli, humans are probably endowed with distinct faculties1, 2 and maintain specialized neural structures to enhance their detection. Here we consider that a critical function of the human amygdala3, 4 is to enhance the perception of stimuli that have emotional significance. Under conditions of limited attention for normal perceptual awareness—that is, the attentional blink5, 6—we show that healthy observers demonstrate robust benefits for the perception of verbal stimuli of aversive content compared with stimuli of neutral content. In contrast, a patient with bilateral amygdala damage has no enhanced perception for such aversive stimulus events. Examination of patients with either left or right amygdala resections shows that the enhanced perception of aversive words depends specifically on the left amygdala. All patients comprehend normally the affective meaning of the stimulus events, despite the lack of evidence for enhanced perceptual encoding of these events in patients with left amygdala lesions. Our results reveal a neural substrate for affective influences on perception, indicating that similar neural mechanisms may underlie the affective modulation of both recollective7, 8, 9 and perceptual experience.