Neural mapping of guilt: a quantitative meta-analysis of functional imaging studies

Original Research


Guilt is a self-conscious emotion associated with the negative appraisal of one’s behavior. In recent years, several neuroimaging studies have investigated the neural correlates of guilt, but no meta-analyses have yet identified the most robust activation patterns. A systematic review of literature found 16 functional magnetic resonance imaging studies with whole-brain analyses meeting the inclusion criteria, for a total of 325 participants and 135 foci of activation. A meta-analysis was then conducted using activation likelihood estimation. Additionally, Meta-Analytic Connectivity Modeling (MACM) analysis was conducted to investigate the functional connectivity of significant clusters. The analysis revealed 12 significant clusters of brain activation (voxel-based FDR-corrected p < 0.05) located in the prefrontal, temporal and parietal regions, mainly in the left hemisphere. Only the left dorsal cingulate cluster survived stringent FWE correction (voxel-based p < 0.05). Secondary analyses (voxel-based FDR-corrected p < 0.05) on the 7 studies contrasting guilt with another emotional condition showed an association with clusters in the left precuneus, the anterior cingulate, the left medial frontal gyrus, the right superior frontal gyrus and the left superior temporal gyrus. MACM demonstrated that regions associated with guilt are highly interconnected. Our analysis identified a distributed neural network of left-lateralized regions associated with guilt. While voxel-based FDR-corrected results should be considered exploratory, the dorsal cingulate was robustly associated with guilt. We speculate that this network integrates cognitive and emotional processes involved in the experience of guilt, including self-representation, theory of mind, conflict monitoring and moral values. Limitations of our meta-analyses comprise the small sample size and the heterogeneity of included studies, and concerns about naturalistic validity.


Guilt fMRI Neuroimaging Meta-analysis Medial prefrontal cortex 

Supplementary material

11682_2016_9606_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (253 kb)
Supplementary Figure1 Meta-analytic connectivity modeling (MACM) analysis of regions associated with guilt. Footnotes: Regions from the left hemisphere are in red and from the right in blue. Areas associated with guilt in the initial meta-analysis are represented with darker shades: Left and Right Anterior Cingulate Gyrus (BA32), Left and Right Medial Frontal Gyrus (BA6, BA8, BA9, BA11), Left Superior Frontal Gyrus (BA6, BA9, BA10), Left and Right Inferior Frontal Gyrus (BA44), Left Insula (BA13), Left Parietal Supramarginal Gyrus (BA40), Left Middle Temporal Gyrus (BA21, BA22, BA39), Superior Temporal Gyrus (BA13, BA22, BA38, BA39), Parahippocampal Gyrus (BA30), and Precuneus (BA7). The edges joining two guilt-associated regions are represented with a larger width. In paler shades, co-activated regions identified with the MACM process: Inferior Frontal Gyrus (BA9, BA44, BA45, BA46, BA47), Middle Frontal Gyrus (BA9, BA10), Cingulate Gyrus (BA24, BA31, BA32), Posterior cingulate Gyrus (BA30, BA31), Precentral Gyrus BA4, BA6, BA44, Postcentral (BA3), Superior Parietal Lobule (BA7, BA22), Inferior Parietal Lobule (BA7, BA40), Inferior Occipital Gyrus (BA19), Precuneus (BA7, BA31), Thalamus (including Ventral Lateral Nucleus, Ventral Posterior Lateral Nucleus, Medial Dorsal Nucleus), Lateral Globus Pallidus, Amygdala, Putamen, Substancia nigra, Caudate body, Cerebellum (Culmen). (PDF 252 kb)
11682_2016_9606_MOESM2_ESM.docx (54 kb)
Supplementary Table 1Volumes of interest used in connectivity modeling with BrainMap results. (DOCX 53 kb)

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anthony J. Gifuni
    • 1
  • Adam Kendal
    • 1
  • Fabrice Jollant
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Psychiatry & Douglas Mental Health University Institute, McGill Group for Suicide StudiesMcGill UniversityMontréalCanada
  2. 2.Department of PsychiatryAcademic Hospital (CHU) of NîmesNîmesFrance

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