I recently published my first primary-author research study (Cole & Schneider, 2007).
The study used functional MRI to discover a network of brain regions responsible for conscious will (i.e., cognitive control). It also revealed the network’s specialized parts, which each uniquely contribute to creating the emergent property of conscious will.
I believe this research contributes substantially to our understanding of how we control our own thoughts and actions based on current goals. Much remains a mystery, but this study clearly shows the existence of a functionally integrated yet specialized network for cognitive control.
What is cognitive control? It is the set of brain processes necessary for goal-directed thought and action. Remembering a phone number before dialing requires cognitive control. Also, anything outside routine requires cognitive control (because it’s novel and/or conflicting with what you normally do). This includes, among other things, voluntarily shifting attention and making decisions.
What brain regions are involved? A mountain of evidence is accumulating that a common set of brain regions are involved in cognitive control. We looked for these regions specifically, and verified that they were active during our experiment [see top figure]. The brain regions are spread across the cortex, from the front to the back to either side. However, it’s not the whole brain: there are distinct parts that are involved in cognitive control and not other behavioral demands.