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Many recent behavioral and neuroscientific studies have revealed the importance of investigating meditation states and traits to achieve an increased understanding of cognitive and affective neuroplasticity, attention and self-awareness, as well as for their increasingly recognized clinical relevance. The investigation of states and traits related to meditation has especially pronounced implications for the neuroscience of attention, consciousness, self-awareness, empathy and theory of mind. In this article we present the main features of meditation-based mental training and characterize the current scientific approach to meditation states and traits with special reference to attention and consciousness, in light of the articles contributed to this issue.
Meditation refers to a family of complex emotional and attentional regulatory practices, which can be classified into two main styles – focused attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM) – involving different attentional, cognitive monitoring and awareness processes. In a functional magnetic resonance study we originally characterized and contrasted FA and OM meditation forms within the same experiment, by an integrated FA–OM design. Theravada Buddhist monks, expert in both FA and OM meditation forms, and lay novices with 10 days of meditation practice, participated in the experiment. Our evidence suggests that expert meditators control cognitive engagement in conscious processing of sensory-related, thought and emotion contents, by massive self-regulation of fronto-parietal and insular areas in the left hemisphere, in a meditation state-dependent fashion. We also found that anterior cingulate and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices play antagonist roles in the executive control of the attention setting in meditation tasks. Our findings resolve the controversy between the hypothesis that meditative states are associated to transient hypofrontality or deactivation of executive brain areas, and evidence about the activation of executive brain areas in meditation. Finally, our study suggests that a functional reorganization of brain activity patterns for focused attention and cognitive monitoring takes place with mental practice, and that meditation-related neuroplasticity is crucially associated to a functional reorganization of activity patterns in prefrontal cortex and in the insula.