Stimulus arousal drives amygdalar responses to emotional expressions across sensory modalities.
The factors that drive amygdalar responses to emotionally significant stimuli are still a matter of debate – particularly the proneness of the amygdala to respond to negatively-valenced stimuli has been discussed controversially. Furthermore, it is uncertain whether the amygdala responds in a modality-general fashion or whether modality-specific idiosyncrasies exist. Therefore, the present functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study systematically investigated amygdalar responding to stimulus valence and arousal of emotional expressions across visual and auditory modalities. During scanning, participants performed a gender judgment task while prosodic and facial emotional expressions were presented. The stimuli varied in stimulus valence and arousal by including neutral, happy and angry expressions of high and low emotional intensity. Results demonstrate amygdalar activation as a function of stimulus arousal and accordingly associated emotional intensity regardless of stimulus valence. Furthermore, arousal-driven amygdalar responding did not depend on the visual and auditory modalities of emotional expressions. Thus, the current results are consistent with the notion that the amygdala codes general stimulus relevance across visual and auditory modalities irrespective of valence. In addition, whole brain analyses revealed that effects in visual and auditory areas were driven mainly by high intense emotional facial and vocal stimuli, respectively, suggesting modality-specific representations of emotional expressions in auditory and visual cortices.