One of the neural structures more often implicated in the processing of emotional signals in the absence of visual awareness is the amygdala. In this chapter, we review current evidence from human neuroscience in healthy and brain-damaged patients on the role of amygdala during non-conscious (visual) perception of emotional stimuli. Nevertheless, there is as of yet no consensus on the limits and conditions that affect the extent of amygdala’s response without focused attention or awareness. We propose to distinguish between attentional unawareness, a condition wherein the stimulus is potentially accessible to enter visual awareness but fails to do so because attention is diverted, and sensory unawareness, in which the stimulus fails to enter awareness because its normal processing in the visual cortex is suppressed. Within this conceptual framework, some of the apparently contradictory findings seem to gain new coherence and converge on the role of the amygdala in supporting different types of non-conscious emotion processing. Amygdala responses in the absence of awareness are linked to different functional mechanisms and are driven by more complex neural networks than commonly assumed. Acknowledging this complexity can be helpful to foster new studies on amygdala functions without awareness and their impact on human behaviour.
Part of the book: The Amygdala