New Ways to Think About Guilt: Inside the Human Brain

07/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Guilt is a form of self-regulation that warns of punishment, protects us from our innate prejudices and promotes social relatedness. As such, it facilitates a greater degree of social cohesion. Yet, despite this function, guilt is also an immense burden for the ways in which it may impede individual development when it conflicts with social acceptance. In that sense, it is a poison of pure pleasure and a party-pooper. Where in the human brain does this emotion make itself manifest? Why does it have such a stronghold on your life? What can you do about it?

If you were to put your hand between both brain hemispheres starting at your forehead (not something that I would recommend), it would reach the lowermost part of that part of the frontal lobe that is right at the front of the brain, and very central. This part of the brain is called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). It is the accountant of the human brain and assesses potential gains and losses that we might incur.

This brain region has rich connections with reward centers in the brain. When it is damaged, the reward centers rev up to their highest accelerations without any input from the vmPFC. All we register is the reward of an action. There is nothing to institute checks and balances. This is the often dreamed about "guiltless" state where the accountant of our brains has gone to sleep.

Guilt, on the other hand, arises when our brains recognize that they cannot act as though reward is the only factor that should determine our behavior. They submit the potential rewards to the vmPFC for consideration and for integration with potential risks. This is when we start to feel that unease about our prior night's indulgences or prejudices that can't stay unconscious.

People who are addicted to alcohol, pathological gamblers and sociopaths are three groups of people who, for example, do not activate the vmPFC significantly when receiving rewards. In effect, the accountant that usually provides checks and balances has gone to sleep. Thus, even though the punishment is received (either in the form of hangovers, arrests or large money losses), there is no guilt to moderate the behaviors that eventually become self-destructive. The brains of these subgroups and people who do not feel guilty only register immediate gains. There is no registration of later outcome.

Guilt is therefore a result of vmPFC activity. When this activity is very great, it leads to huge moral sensitivity that can be a tremendous burden to someone who also wishes to explore life. The key then, would be to keep the vmPFC active without having it activate to the detriment of your own discoveries. Putting it to sleep does not serve us, as it is actually there to protect us if we also allow it to do so. How can this understanding help us in our daily lives?

1. People have varying degrees of moral sensitivity ranging from sociopathic opportunists to religious fanatics. In each of these cases, the brain's accountant is either asleep or hyperactive respectively, and understanding this may help us understand the complexity of dealing with such people. Telling them to face their callousness or "relax" is insufficient to re-engage the vmPFC. There actually have to be conditions that inspire this. For the sociopath, the challenge is to find a trusting environment. For the religious fanatic, the challenge is to address the fear of rewards.

2. If you are burdened by your own guilt but unable to change the behaviors that cause this, consider the following: You may have to train your vmPFC to be a greater part of your life by engaging in conscious exercises to awaken it after you contemplate a reward. For example, if you know that having three drinks in a safe environment enhances the quality of your life but that more than three drinks enhances it in the moment with disastrous consequences later, you may set up repetitive conversations with a trusted person geared to change your behavior to serve you rather than work against you.

3. If you find that you are burdened by guilt that restricts your freedom, ask yourself what real freedom is. Freedom is clearly not putting your vmPFC to sleep. That is just asking for trouble. But it is also not hyperactivating your vmPFC. How can you grant yourself greater permission to explore? Rank the potential harm that you are causing to your life by exploring your life in the ways that you want to. Start slowly by allowing yourself a "low score" risk that brings little to no harm to yourself or others and repeat this behavior until your brain is used to the sensation of reward.

The message here is that although we may be fixed in the ways in which we handle guilt, we can teach our brains to become smarter about how we handle our desires. By being in active consideration of this and by anchoring our thoughts in this awareness of brain activity, we can gain some perspective about our own development that is dynamic and not boring. When we are stuck in our lives, it is usually because we have either turned the volume of certain brain regions off or to "maximum." Between silence and deafening loudness, our brains can make music that inspires us to live enriching lives.