Preferential attention to animals and people is independent of the amygdala


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Abstract

The amygdala is thought to play a critical role in detecting salient stimuli. Several studies have taken ecological approaches to investigating such saliency, and argue for domain-specific effects for processing certain natural stimulus categories, in particular faces and animals. Linking this to the amygdala, neurons in the human amygdala have been found to respond strongly to faces and also to animals. However, the amygdala’s necessary role for such category-specific effects at the behavioral level remains untested. Here we tested four rare patients with bilateral amygdala lesions on an established change-detection protocol. Consistent with prior published studies, healthy controls showed reliably faster and more accurate detection of people and animals, as compared with artifacts and plants. So did all four amygdala patients: there were no differences in phenomenal change blindness, in behavioral reaction time to detect changes or in eye-tracking measures. The findings provide decisive evidence against a critical participation of the amygdala in rapid initial processing of attention to animate stimuli, suggesting that the necessary neural substrates for this phenomenon arise either in other subcortical structures (such as the pulvinar) or within the cortex itself.

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