BACKGROUND: Self-referential emotions such as shame/guilt and pride provide evaluative information about persons themselves. In addition to emotional aspects, social and self-referential processes play a role in self-referential emotions. Prior studies have rather focused on comparing self-referential and other-referential processes of one valence, triggered mostly by external stimuli. In the current study, we aimed at investigating the valence-specific neural correlates of shame/guilt and pride, evoked by the remembrance of a corresponding autobiographical event during functional magnetic resonance imaging.
METHOD: A total of 25 healthy volunteers were studied. The task comprised a negative (shame/guilt), a positive (pride) and a neutral condition (expecting the distractor). Each condition was initiated by a simple cue, followed by the remembrance and finished by a distracting picture.
RESULTS: Pride and shame/guilt conditions both activated typical emotion-processing circuits including the amygdala, insula and ventral striatum, as well as self-referential brain regions such as the bilateral dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. Comparing the two emotional conditions, emotion-processing circuits were more activated by pride than by shame, possibly due to either hedonic experiences or stronger involvement of the participants in positive self-referential emotions due to a self-positivity bias. However, the ventral striatum was similarly activated by pride and shame/guilt. In the whole-brain analysis, both self-referential emotion conditions activated medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate regions, corresponding to the self-referential aspect and the autobiographical evocation of the respective emotions.
CONCLUSION: Autobiographically evoked self-referential emotions activated basic emotional as well as self-referential circuits. Except for the ventral striatum, emotional circuits were more active with pride than with shame.