Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2014 Feb;9(2):150-7. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss114. Epub 2012 Oct 9.


In this study, a functional magnetic resonance imaging paradigm originally employed by Takahashi et al. was adapted to look for emotion-specific differences in functional brain activity within a healthy German sample (N = 14), using shame- and guilt-related stimuli and neutral stimuli. Activations were found for both of these emotions in the temporal lobe (shame condition: anterior cingulate cortex, parahippocampal gyrus; guilt condition: fusiform gyrus, middle temporal gyrus). Specific activations were found for shame in the frontal lobe (medial and inferior frontal gyrus), and for guilt in the amygdala and insula. This is consistent with Takahashi et al.'s results obtained for a Japanese sample (using Japanese stimuli), which showed activations in the fusiform gyrus, hippocampus, middle occipital gyrus and parahippocampal gyrus. During the imagination of shame, frontal and temporal areas (e.g. middle frontal gyrus and parahippocampal gyrus) were responsive regardless of gender. In the guilt condition, women only activate temporal regions, whereas men showed additional frontal and occipital activation as well as a responsive amygdala. The results suggest that shame and guilt share some neural networks, as well as having individual areas of activation. It can be concluded that frontal, temporal and limbic areas play a prominent role in the generation of moral feelings.

Keywords: culture; fMRI; gender; guilt; moral emotion; shame.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Guilt*
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology
  • Pilot Projects
  • Reading
  • Sex Factors
  • Shame*
  • Young Adult