Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Organisms must constantly balance appetitive needs with vigilance for potential threats. Recent research suggests that the amygdala may play an important role in both of these goals. Although the amygdala plays a role in processing motivationally relevant stimuli that are positive or negative, negative information often appears to carry greater weight. From a functional perspective, this may reflect the fact that threatening stimuli generally require action, whereas appetitive stimuli can often be safely ignored. In this study, we examine whether amygdala activation to positive stimuli may be more sensitive to task goals than negative stimuli, which are often related to self-preservation concerns. During fMRI, participants were presented with two images that varied on valence and extremity and were instructed to focus on one of the images. Results indicated that negative stimuli elicited greater amygdala activity regardless of task relevance. In contrast, positive stimuli only led to a relative increase in amygdala activity when they were task relevant. This suggests that the amygdala may be more responsive to negative stimuli regardless of their relevance to immediate goals, whereas positive stimuli may only elicit amygdala activity when they are relevant to the perceivers' goals. This pattern of valence asymmetry in the human amygdala may help balance approach-related goal pursuit with chronic self-preservation goals.