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NeuroQuantology | June 2007 | Vol 5 | Issue 2 | Page 233-240 233

Cardoso R et al. Prefrontal cortex in meditation


Prefrontal Cortex in Meditation

When the Concrete Leads to the Abstract

A schematically hypothesis, concerning the participation of

the logic for "logic relaxation"

Roberto Cardoso∗ , Eduardo de Souza∗ ,

Luiz Camano∗ , José R. Leite**1

Meditation involves, among others aspects, a state known as "logic relaxation".
Some people may, therefore, consider a paradox the increase of the activation
of the prefrontal lobe during meditation described in some studies. After all,
this region is classically associated to logic, and should not be activated during
the so-called "logic relaxation". In this schematical model, the authors point out
the probable explanation with respect to these findings, while they encourage
future studies of brain mapping involving the subject. According to this model,
the higher activity in prefrontal lobe would be caused by use of the so-called
"self-focus skill", an exercise of directing the focus of the attention, that it is
especially important in the installation of meditating techniques.

Key Words: meditation, prefrontal cortex, logic, cognition

NeuroQuantology 2007; 2: 233-240

1 Corresponding author: Roberto Cardoso

Address: Rua Pedro de Toledo, 541 / 72 04039-031 São Paulo – SP – Brazil
* Department of Obstetrics of UNIFESP - Escola Paulista de Medicina – São Paulo - Brazil.
** Behavioral Medicine Unit - Department of Psychobiology of UNIFESP - Escola Paulista de Medicina – São Paulo - Brazil.

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Cardoso R et al. Prefrontal cortex in meditation

Initially, the term meditation reminds us occurs in the concentrative techniques.

of an ancient spiritual practice, but it has Moreover, the apparent "lack of anchor",
gradually been considered by researchers that would exist in mindfulness is only an
in the Neuroscience area as a useful initial impression. In fact, this technique,
complementary procedure in Medicine. in our opinion, uses what we call of
Our group has published an "anchor of anchor absence" (or “negative
operational definition for meditation anchor”), or either, in very simple words,
involving, basically, five aspects (Cardoso, the self-focus skill would consist of
2004). In accordance with this definition, leaving the attention free to move itself in
a procedure is considered as meditation if direction to any circumstantial event. Also,
it presents the following parameters: it was published an interesting
A necessarily self-induced state (1), operational definition of mindfulness
applied through (2) a specific technique meditation (Bishop, 2004). This definition,
(clearly defined), using (3) a self focus skill if carefully read, does not contradict what
(coined “anchor”), intending (4) the “logic it is presented here, therefore, the
relaxation”, and presenting (5) muscle authors consider two basic components:
relaxation somewhere during the process. self-regulation of attention and
The self focus skill, which is present orientation to experience. If we could
in all the techniques that we recognize as perceive the subjective meaning of the
meditation, intends to keep all the text, we would see that is about a very
attention unidirectionally focused. It can subtle anchor, therefore when the
be a concentration (positive anchor) or a practitioner loses the characteristic
turning off (negative anchor) skill. Positive psychophysical state, he must to "return
anchors may focus on one point of the to the anchor" (orientation to
body, a sound, and respiration, among experience).
others. Negative anchors are used in the The term “logic relaxation”, at first
perceptive-like techniques, being called seems paradoxal. However, this is
“anchor of anchor absence”. The most probably the most subtle aspect of
published technique, using a "negative meditation. This term would involve three
anchor", is generally known as aspects: (a) not “to intend” to analyzing
Mindfulness Meditation. However, the (not trying to explain) the possible
mindfulness meditation can be psychophysical effects; (b) not “to intend”
catalogued in the same operational to judging (good, bad, right, wrong) the
definition mentioned above. In this kind possible psychophysical effects, and; (c)
of meditation a modified state of not “to intend” to creating any type of
consciousness is achieved (associated to expectation regarding the process.
psychophysical relaxation), as well as it Through this stratagem, the individual

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Cardoso R et al. Prefrontal cortex in meditation

obtains not to become involved in the this paper, the “anchor” is cited as “focus
stream of thoughts that appears during of attention”, and the so-called “logic
the meditative practice. relaxation” is cited (in certain way) as “an
We can say that, basically, a open attitude”. According to this paper,
meditation technique is a simple duet an “open attitude” involves “…letting
that involves the “anchor” (self-focus skill) distractions come and go naturally
and the “logic relaxation”. The individual without stopping to think about them.
will gradually exercise his capacity of When distracting or wandering thoughts
being “focused in the anchor”. At the very occur, they are not suppressed; instead,
moment he perceives himself involved in the meditator gently brings attention
the stream of thoughts, he will back to the focus. In some types of
immediately return to be “focused in the meditation, the meditator learns to
anchor”. But if he, despite his "intention observe the rising and falling of thoughts
to" maintain the so-called “logic and emotions as they spontaneously
relaxation”, he perceives himself involved occur…”. Amongst the references, citing
in the stream of thoughts he will – again the papers that had given base to this text,
and again – “return to the anchor” (figure our operational definition is pointed
1). (Cardoso et al., 2004).
Naturally, the term "logic relaxation"
raised some questions by some members
of the scientific community. In fact, it is
hard to figure out a technical procedure
(any one) put into practice without the
aid of the logic. Some neuroscientists
argued that “ is not clear that during
meditation there is no purpose or
Figure 1. The base of a meditative exercise. During expectation (of course we can have the
meditation, all the attention should be kept in self
focus skill, so-called anchor. This artifice allows belief, although unfounded, that we have
so-called “logic relaxation”. When the apprentice no purpose or expectation) because, at
perceives himself involved in thoughts, he should
return all his attention to the anchor. the very minimum, we have the
expectation of remaining in the
Recently, the NIH´s NCCAM (National meditative state for a few minutes and
Institutes of Health – National Center for the expectation that the state will end at
Complementary and Alternative Medicine) some time. We cannot forget that we are
published a text in which meditation is meditating...”
presented as a procedure to be utilized in The strongest argument of
Health interventions (NCCAM, 2006). In commentators, however, was the

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Cardoso R et al. Prefrontal cortex in meditation

following question: “...Can we expect that any kind of thoughts, he will immediately
our prefrontal cortex (heavily involved return to be “focused in the anchor”. This
with plans, expectations, working memory is the most important practical principle
and attention) just stops working during of the meditation.
meditation? Is there any proof for this Some studies have demonstrated
expectation?...” that the prefrontal cortex could have a
These arguments, of course, basic participation in the "necessary
generated a few insights in our group. attention for fulfillment of a task". In
After all, some papers had demonstrated, 2001, Allegri & Harris present a review on
in contrast, a higher activity in the the role of the prefrontal cortex in both
prefrontal region during meditation. memory and attention processes (Allegri,
In an interesting study, Lazar et al. 2001). The evidences mainly showed that
were able to obtain, through functional the activation of this region, especially of
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a the dorsolateral prefrontal circuit,
brain mapping during meditation (Lazar, seemed to mediate the executive actions,
2000). Among other results, they found a mainly the activities that we could
higher activity in the prefrontal region mention as of "control through the
during the meditative practice. attention". Kane & Engle, in 2002,
However, we do not believe that presented a critical review about the role
results as these can contradict our of the prefrontal cortex in working
operational definition. In contrast, they memory capacity, executive attention,
could be explained through it. and general fluid intelligence (Kane, 2002).
Remembering our operational definition, They had confirmed the impression that
we can notice that one of its components dorsolateral prefrontal cortex circuit is
involves a self-focus skill (anchor), and critical to executive-attention functions.
this can be demonstrated by the activity An architectural model of the prefrontal
of the prefrontal cortex. The activity cortex function was presented by
detected in this region can be the Koechilin, Ody & Kounelher, in 2003,
functional expression of the exercise of pointing out its role in "…co-ordinating
"anchor". The “anchor” is a self-focus skill, thoughts and action in relation with
which can be represented by a sound, by internal goals…" (Koechlin, 2003).
an image, a concentrated attention in a These findings can be compatible
given part of the body, etc. Through a with our ideas. Using our operational
continuous exercise, the apprentice definition, we can see that one of the
improves his capacity of keeping himself components involves the self-focus skill
“focused in the anchor”. At the very (“anchor”), and this is in agreement with
moment he perceives himself involved in the activity of prefrontal cortex.

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Cardoso R et al. Prefrontal cortex in meditation

“Keeping the anchor” requires attention transforming an abstract task into a

and to “keep attention” requires activity concrete action (Cools, 2004). In our
of the prefrontal cortex. The “anchor” opinion, this seems to be, essentially, the
demands an intense effort of the function of the "anchor" in meditation:
apprentice, or better, from the to function as a bridge, between the
apprentice’s prefrontal cortex. concrete and the abstract. Or either,
In 2002, Fuster showed an through a specific technique (self-applied),
interesting pictorial study about the becomes fulfilled an abstract task (intend
frontal lobe and the cognitive the "logic relaxation") through a concrete
development (Fuster, 2002). He task (keep the "anchor"), allowing a
determined the lateral prefrontal cortex specific state of psychophysical
as the basic element in the temporal relaxation.
organization of goal-directed actions, We could say that, concerning its practical
including the participation of working application, meditation involves two
memory in the executive activities. Based components. The first one: “exercising
on these arguments, and returning to our the anchor”, or either, the meditator
operational definition, we can say that exercises his capacity "to return to the
the effort "to keep the anchor" would be anchor", every time he perceives himself
similar as to put all the plans such as distracted by thoughts. This step probably
working memory and attention – all the explains the increase of activity in the
“logical” activity – in a “head of pin”. We prefrontal lobe. The second step
come across here, perhaps, with the (obtained after the first one) is the "logic
highest “secret” of meditation and it may relaxation ". This one would probably be
be the principal object of study of brain responsible for explaining the other
researchers in protocols using meditation, alterations in cerebral activity. Of course,
once they apply an adequate operational these components have no specific
definition. borders, but this didactic division seems
The great "conceptual knot" is the basic to correlate the future findings of
fact that meditation is, actually, an brain mapping without thinking that
abstract activity. However, even the “meditation is only an exercise of logic”.
abstract aspects of a task can involve the Once understood this technical
participation of the prefrontal cortex. sequence of events, we can note that only
Cools, Clark & Robbins applied, in 2004, after an increase in the activation of the
functional magnetic resonance imaging prefrontal cortex would the "keeping the
during the performance of volunteers in anchor" exercise be fully established. The
attentional tasks, demonstrating the next stage to be reached is the so-called
capacity of the lateral prefrontal cortex in "altered state of consciousness", in which

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Cardoso R et al. Prefrontal cortex in meditation

it would be configured a standard feature of all altered states and [...] the
cerebral activity, characterizing the phenomenological uniqueness of each
"meditative state". These arguments are state is the result of the viability of various
corroborated by Dietrich (2003), who frontal circuits… "
presents the hypothesis of a transient Based on such arguments, we
prefrontal cortex deregulation, present here a schematical model that
denominated "transient hypofrontality" intends to establish a hypothesis
(Dietrich, 2003). This would be the major concerning the probable participation of
event in the altered states of the prefrontal cortex in meditating
consciousness. As Dietrich says techniques (Figure 2).
"…transient hypofrontality is the unifying

Figure 2. A schematical model, to establish a hypothesis concerning the participation of the prefrontal
cortex in meditating techniques. The anchor exercise allows the “logic relaxation” (arrow to the right).
Eventually, "logic relaxation" is lost. At this moment, it is necessary to concentrate the efforts in the
“anchor” (arrow to the left), one more time. In these situations, the apprentice frequently lost the
concentration in the anchor. These events tend to repeat, each time in more distant cycles. The
psychophysical relaxation is obtained.

In accordance with this model, a explanation includes the anchor, which

meditating exercise presents the will be specifically used in this exercise).
following steps: b) Application of the “anchor” exercise
a) Definition of the specific technique (the (increased activity in the prefrontal
instructor presents a clearly explained cortex),
technique to the apprentice; the c) “Logic relaxation” (other standards of

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Cardoso R et al. Prefrontal cortex in meditation

cerebral activity, still to be better state. It is almost inexplicable. In this

studied). paper, we have tried to explain some
d) Loss of "logic relaxation" (possibly psychobiological aspects of meditation.
associated to an imperfection in the However, in final instance, the meditating
anchor exercise). experience may be a phenomenon
e) Higher effort in the anchor exercise beyond habitual explanations; a “quantic
(obtaining again the "logic relaxation"). manifestation”.
d) Repeated cycles of the previous events, Obviously, we must to recognize that
with time intervals more and longer. the term “logic relaxation” is referring to
e) Psychophysical relaxation (gradual and a technical stratagem and not yet to a
partially simultaneous to all the process). well-recognized pattern of cerebral
Despite all these arguments, function.
someone could still ask how the logic This very simple model does not
could helps to reach the "logic relaxation"? intend to encompass the cycle of studies
After all, some facts presented in this concerning the cerebral activity during
paper do not seem necessarily linked the meditation. On the other hand, we
between themselves. We could answer by hope that such a model serves as
stating that meditation is an "impossible inspiration for future researchers aiming
mission". Trying to focus all the attention for new information.
in the anchor, trying to focus all the logic The increasing interest concerning
at only one point, is something that might meditation as a complementary
be impossible. In the effort to try to fulfill procedure in Medicine, associated with
this outstanding task, we would achieve the current resource of functional
the modified state of conscience that magnetic resonance imaging will, no
meditation allows. But this would be the doubt, open a new track in this field of
highest phenomenon in the meditative Neuroscience.

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Cardoso R et al. Prefrontal cortex in meditation

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