It refers to attention in a different way than cognitive neuroscience, implying a very strong leading of attention, as it leads to more concentrated mental process : vicāra, pīti, sukha, upekkha and ekaggatā.
Vitakka is the first element to appear in meditation's process, still present in the first Jhana, but absent of any further Jhana. In the Abhidhamma it refers to "the mental factor that mounts or directs the mind onto the object. Just as a king's favorite might conduct a villager to the palace, even so vitakka directs the mind onto the object. In the practice for attaining jhana, vitakka has the special task of inhibiting the hindrance of sloth and torpor." 
- A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Acariya Anuruddha", general editor Bhikkhu Bodhi, pali text originally edited and translated by Mahathera Narada. Buddhist publication society 1993, p.57
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