The mental self

Prog Brain Res. 2005;150:197-204. doi: 10.1016/S0079-6123(05)50014-1.


In meditation both the quality and the contents of consciousness may be voluntarily changed, making it an obvious target in the quest for the neural correlate of consciousness. Here we present the results of a positron emission tomography study of yoga nidra relaxation meditation when compared with the normal resting conscious state. Meditation is accompanied by a relatively increased perfusion in the sensory imagery system: hippocampus and sensory and higher order association regions, with decreased perfusion in the executive system: dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate gyrus, striatum, thalamus, pons, and cerebellum. To identify regions active in both systems we performed a principal component analysis of the results. This separated the blood flow data into two groups of regions, explaining 25 and 18% of their variance: One group corresponded to the executive system, and the other to the systems supporting sensory imagery. A small group of regions contributed considerably to both networks: medial parietal and medial prefrontal cortices, together with the striatum. The inclusion of the striatum and our subsequent finding of increased striatal dopamine binding to D2 receptors during meditation suggested dopaminergic regulation of this circuit. We then investigated the neural networks supporting episodic retrieval of judgments of individuals with different degrees of self-relevance, in the decreasing order: self, best friend, and the Danish queen. We found that all conditions activated a medial prefrontal - precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex, thalamus, and cerebellum. This activation occurred together with the activation of the left lateral prefrontal/temporal cortex. The latter was dependent on the requirement of retrieval of semantic information, being most pronounced in the "queen" condition. Transcranial magnetic stimulation, targeting precuneus, was then applied to the medial parietal region to transiently disrupt the normal function of the circuitry. We found a decreased efficiency of retrieval of self-judgment compared to the judgment of best friend. This shows that the integrity of the function of precuneus is essential for self-reference, but not for reference to others.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Consciousness
  • Ego*
  • Humans
  • Meditation
  • Mental Processes*
  • Positron-Emission Tomography*
  • Relaxation Therapy*
  • Rest
  • Yoga*