The Human Amygdala: An Evolved System for Relevance Detection

David Sander, Jordan Grafman, Tiziana Zalla*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

623 Scopus citations


Evidence from pioneering animal research has suggested that the amygdala is involved in the processing of aversive stimuli, particularly fear-related information. Fear is central in the evolution of the mammalian brain: it is automatically and rapidly elicited by potentially dangerous and deadly events. The view that the amygdala shares the main characteristics of modular systems, e.g. domain specificity, automaticity, and cognitive impenetrability, has become popular in neuroscience. Because of its computational properties, it has been proposed to implement a rapid-response 'fear module'. In this article, we review recent patient and neuroimaging data of the human brain and argue that the fundamental criteria for the amygdala to be a modular system are not met. We propose a different computational view and suggest the notion of a specific involvement of the human amygdala in the appraisal of relevant events that include, but are not restricted to, fear-related stimuli. Considering the amygdala as a 'relevance detector' would integrate the 'fear module' hypothesis with the concept of an evolved neural system devoted to the processing of a broader category of biologically relevant stimuli. In primates, socially relevant events appear to have become, through evolution, the dominant elements of the amygdala's domain of specificity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)303-316
Number of pages14
JournalReviews in the Neurosciences
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2003


  • Appraisal
  • Emotion
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Human brain
  • Social cognition
  • Temporal lobe

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)

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