The amygdala — the part of the brain involved in fear and anxiety — is a small almond-shaped structure located deep in the cortex of the brain. In the 17 May Nature Anderson and Phelps report another critical function of the human amygdala — to distinguish the significant from the mundane (Nature 2001, 411:305-309).

Subjects were shown a series of words, some emotive — for example, 'rape' and 'bastard' — others neutral — for example, 'broom' and 'distance'. When shown an emotive word, control subjects experienced a transient impairment of awareness when subsequently presented with the next word in the series. This lag, during which attentional resources are occupied with processing the preceding word, is called the attentional-blink effect. Patients with right amygdala lesions reacted in the same way as controls but those with left amygdala lesions had no enhanced perception of such emotive words.

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