Shame and Guilt in the Brain

Lesson objective:

This lesson covers the roots and effects of guilt and shame. What are their respective association with certain parts of the brain? How are these parts different and how do they overlap? Do guilt or shame associate with empathy and psychological distress? In this lesson, we further discuss the effects of guilt and shame on our bodies and how they are different amongst different individuals.

Guilt and shame have different origins, purposes, and effects. 

As said, guilt is behavior-focused, whereas shame is self- or identity-focused. 

As such, the brain coordinates guilt and shame in separate brain regions, with some degree of overlap.

Shame and guilt are both related to activity of the Anterior Insula and of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. 

These parts of the brain are part of our limbic system and contribute to functions like awareness of positive and negative emotions, the experience of social pain, and the processing of subjective feelings. 

The activation of these regions during shame and guilt reinforces that these are painful and potentially damaging negative self-conscious emotions.

Specifically, guilt has been linked to activity in the dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex (dmPFC), which is a brain region related to the ability to imagine and infer others’ feelings, thoughts, and intentions. This is consistent with the idea that guilt is closely related to empathy, and that when we feel guilt, we often evaluate how and in what ways our actions affect the feelings of others. Basically, when we feel guilt, we often ruminate on the feeling states our actions have caused in those we have hurt. This rumination on others’ feelings is reflected in the brain. 

Slightly differently, shame has been associated with activity in brain regions such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, and the sensorimotor cortex. The posterior cingulate cortex is specifically linked to self-representation, to how we see and think about ourselves. 

It makes sense then that shame is linked with activation in this region. After all, shame makes us feel distressed about ourselves—about who we are, how people will think about us. This negative self evaluation and accompanying process in the brain may contribute to isolating behaviors. 

Overall, shame is a form of distress about the self, and the activation of these various brain regions during shame, but not during guilt, adds evidence to the theory that shame requires more “mental work” than guilt and can thus become overwhelming. 

Most importantly, self-conscious emotions are derived from the conclusions we draw concerning whether or not we have lived up to, or failed to live up to, a certain standard. 

They are emotions linked to a self-evaluation, an evaluation of who you are as a person. And truly, the thoughts we tell ourselves about ourselves can be some of the most dangerous thoughts we have. 

Moving from the brain to the rest of the body, it is important to note that the way we feel self-conscious emotions in our bodies can vary. Even though shame and guilt may be related to specific pathways in our brain, the physiological reactions and emotional states they induce may be different moment to moment, day to day. 

For example, our shame or guilt may at times make us feel something like sadness, and at other times something like anger. It may at times feel like tension, and at other times nausea, or an urge to cry, even though tears would not always follow. 

Again, the way the body experiences the overwhelming emotions of shame and guilt may differ from person to person, or from moment to moment. In all cases, though, the body responds to shame the way it responds to many other negative stress-related emotions, as discussed earlier.

Broadly speaking, if we find ourselves experiencing frequent or persistent negative emotions, this can affect our physical health. 

The negative emotions that are associated with guilt and shame can contribute to low self-esteem, cardiovascular disease, immune system suppression, and the onset of depression or an anxiety disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which we have mentioned before in the context of chronic stress and trauma.