Consciousness has many aspects. These include awareness of the world, feelings of control over one's behaviour and mental state (volition), and the notion of a continuing self. Focal (executive) attention is used to control details of our awareness and is thus closely related to volition. Experiments suggest an integrated network of neural areas involved in executive attention. This network is associated with our voluntary ability to select among competing items, to correct error and to regulate our emotions. Recent neuroimaging studies suggest that these various functions involve separate areas of the anterior cingulate.
We have adopted a strategy of using marker tasks, shown to activate the brain area by imaging studies, as a means of tracing the development of attentional networks. Executive attention appears to develop first to regulate distress during the first year of life. During later childhood the ability to regulate conflict among competing stimuli builds upon the earlier cingulate anatomy to provide a means of cognitive control. During childhood the activation of cingulate structures relates both to the child's success on laboratory tasks involving conflict and to parental reports of self–regulation and emotional control. These studies indicate a start in understanding the anatomy, circuitry and development of executive attention networks that serve to regulate both cognition and emotion.