First of all, we need to establish what ‘guilt’ is. According to the Collins Dictionary, guilt is ‘an unhappy feeling that you have because you have either done something wrong or think that you have done something wrong’. Think about that. Our brains tell us to carry out an action, and then proceeds to hint to us that what we just did, wasn’t right. What happens, exactly, that causes our minds to, well, change their mind?

Let’s have a look at the anatomy first. The lowest central part of the frontal lobe is called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) – this almost acts as the ‘accountant’ of the brain, and assesses potential gains and losses that we have by doing certain things. This region has connections with the ‘reward centres’, and when these connections are damaged, we enter a so-called ‘guiltless’ state, in which all we register is the reward of an action. Guilt occurs when our brains recognise that the reward isn’t the only factor that should determine our behaviour. The vmPFC receives and judges the rewards of an action along with potential risks – this is how we can start feeling uneasy about certain indulgences or prejudices. People with addictions, such as alcoholics, fail to activate the vmPFC significantly when receiving rewards, and therefore only register immediate gains as opposed to a possible later outcome. So, guilt partly comes from the level of vmPFC activity.

But there’s more to it. Our emotional responses are activated in the limbic system of the brain – this area is short-term minded, and wants to indulge. Our rational thoughts, however, are formed in the pre-frontal cortex, and this area is… you guessed it, long-term minded – therefore motivating us to exert willpower and self-control. Depending on how you see a particular situation, power constantly shifts between these two areas of thought.

However, you can’t put a feeling like guilt purely down to neuroscience. There is naturally psychology involved, and since this is also a branch of medicine (behavioural medicine that is), we have to consider that too.

People will view and experience guilt in different ways, and this is mainly down to two things: what you did, and your personality. Some people are able to forgive themselves, but others find it extremely difficult to tolerate how they acted in the past – this can grow to such an extent that one can become paranoid.

There is also the idea that guilt boils down to five types:

  • Guilt for something you did,
  • Guilt for something you didn’t do, but want to,
  • Guilt for something you think you did,
  • Guilt that you didn’t do enough to help someone,
  • And guilt that you’re doing better than someone else.

These all come under embodied cognition, an emerging field in psychology that looks at how our thoughts and feelings interact with our bodies to guide behaviour. In some cases, research has shown that guilt actually has a physical impact on the body – people may find it more difficult to carry out everyday tasks, due to the constant ‘weight on their mind’.

In the end, to find out the true scientific cause of guilt, we’d have to crack the concept of emotions, and that is a huge, unanswered question in neuroscience that we can hardly explain. We know which areas of the brain have to do with feeling certain ways, but it is the overlap between neurology and psychology that we need to explore in order to find out more. It is however, safe to say that guilt is truly an intriguing and curious feeling that we all experience at some point, whether we want to or not.


Photo Credits due to: https://www.thoughtco.com/survivors-guilt-definition-examples-4173110