The amygdala: From “What is it?” to “What’s to be done” functions

In this Blog I will discuss ongoing issues related to cognitive-emotional interactions in terms of brain and behavior. Mostly, I’ll discuss some of my ongoing research and related ideas and, occasionally, I’ll write an entry related to other published papers of interest.

In this first post, I’ll comment on a recent review that I wrote trying to summarize some of the functions of the amygdala (here’s the link:  paper).

So, what is the function of the amygdala? Beyond the “fear theme” that has dominated research in the past several decades, two papers that were quite influential in proposing a broader role for the amygdala were the one by Paul Whalen in 1998 and the one by Sander and colleagues (2003). In my review, I suggest that it might be fruitful to go beyond what both of these papers suggested and to consider the roles of the amygdala more broadly in terms of attention, and the representation of value and decision making. Naturally, all of these ideas have been described in the past, but I give my angle on these and other issues in the review. I picked up on a them discussed by Pribram and McGuiness (1975) on conceptualizing functions in terms of “What is it?” and “What’s to be done?” roles that I believe are useful.

In the context of thinking of more general functions of the amygdala, a recent quote that I particularly like, which I recently came across, is one from Amaral and Price (1984), in which they suggest the following:

“As our knowledge of the connections of the amygdala has expanded, it has become apparent that the earlier view that it is primarily involved in the control of visceral and autonomic function is incomplete… These widespread interconnections with diverse parts of the brain simply do not fit with a narrow functional role for the amygdaloid complex. They support, rather, the behavioral and clinical observations which suggest that the amygdaloid complex should be included among the structures which are responsible for the elaboration of higher cognitive functions” (pp. 492-493).


Amaral, D.G. & Price, J.L. Amygdalo-cortical projections in the monkey (Macaca fascicularis). The Journal of comparative neurology 230, 465-496 (1984).

Pribram KH, McGuinness D (1975) Arousal, activation, and effort in the control of attention. Psychol Rev 82:116-149.

Sander D, Grafman J, Zalla T (2003) The human amygdala: an evolved system for relevance detection. Rev Neurosci 14:303-316.

Whalen PJ (1998) Fear, vigilance, and ambiguity: Initial neuroimaging studies of the human amygdala. Current Directions in Psychological Science 7:177-188.