The human amygdala plays a crucial role in processing affective information conveyed by sensory stimuli. Facial expressions of fear and anger, which both signal potential threat to an observer, result in significant increases in amygdala activity, even when the faces are unattended or presented briefly and masked. It has been suggested that afferent signals from the retina travel to the amygdala via separate cortical and subcortical pathways, with the subcortical pathway underlying unconscious processing. Here we exploited the phenomenon of binocular rivalry to induce complete suppression of affective face stimuli presented to one eye. Twelve participants viewed brief, rivalrous visual displays in which a fearful, happy, or neutral face was presented to one eye while a house was presented simultaneously to the other. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study activation in the amygdala and extrastriate visual areas for consciously perceived versus suppressed face and house stimuli. Activation within the fusiform and parahippocampal gyri increased significantly for perceived versus suppressed faces and houses, respectively. Amygdala activation increased bilaterally in response to fearful versus neutral faces, regardless of whether the face was perceived consciously or suppressed because of binocular rivalry. Amygdala activity also increased significantly for happy versus neutral faces, but only when the face was suppressed. This activation pattern suggests that the amygdala has a limited capacity to differentiate between specific facial expressions when it must rely on information received via a subcortical route. We suggest that this limited capacity reflects a tradeoff between specificity and speed of processing.
- Binocular rivalry
- Unconscious perception