Arousal and valence are proposed to represent fundamental dimensions of emotion. The neural substrates for processing these aspects of stimuli are studied widely, with recent studies of chemosensory processing suggesting the amygdala processes intensity (a surrogate for arousal) rather than valence. However, these investigations have assumed that a valence effect in the amygdala is linear such that testing valence extremes is sufficient to infer responses across valence space. In this study, we tested an alternative hypothesis, namely that valence responses in the amygdala are nonlinear. Using event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging, we measured amygdala responses to high- and low-concentration variants of pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant odors. Our results demonstrate that the amygdala exhibits an intensity-by-valence interaction in olfactory processing. In other words, the effect of intensity on amygdala activity is not the same at all levels of valence. Specifically, the amygdala responds differentially to high (vs low)-intensity odor for pleasant and unpleasant smells but not for neutral smells. This implies that the amygdala codes neither intensity nor valence per se, but a combination that we suggest reflects the overall emotional value of a stimulus.
ASJC Scopus subject areas