The posterior cingulate cortex is a highly connected and metabolically active brain region. Recent studies suggest it has an important cognitive role, although there is no consensus about what this is. The region is typically discussed as having a unitary function because of a common pattern of relative deactivation observed during attentionally demanding tasks. One influential hypothesis is that the posterior cingulate cortex has a central role in supporting internally-directed cognition. It is a key node in the default mode network and shows increased activity when individuals retrieve autobiographical memories or plan for the future, as well as during unconstrained ‘rest’ when activity in the brain is ‘free-wheeling’. However, other evidence suggests that the region is highly heterogeneous and may play a direct role in regulating the focus of attention. In addition, its activity varies with arousal state and its interactions with other brain networks may be important for conscious awareness. Understanding posterior cingulate cortex function is likely to be of clinical importance. It is well protected against ischaemic stroke, and so there is relatively little neuropsychological data about the consequences of focal lesions. However, in other conditions abnormalities in the region are clearly linked to disease. For example, amyloid deposition and reduced metabolism is seen early in Alzheimer’s disease. Functional neuroimaging studies show abnormalities in a range of neurological and psychiatric disorders including Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as ageing. Our own work has consistently shown abnormal posterior cingulate cortex function following traumatic brain injury, which predicts attentional impairments. Here we review the anatomy and physiology of the region and how it is affected in a range of clinical conditions, before discussing its proposed functions. We synthesize key findings into a novel model of the region’s function (the ‘Arousal, Balance and Breadth of Attention’ model). Dorsal and ventral subcomponents are functionally separated and differences in regional activity are explained by considering: (i) arousal state; (ii) whether attention is focused internally or externally; and (iii) the breadth of attentional focus. The predictions of the model can be tested within the framework of complex dynamic systems theory, and we propose that the dorsal posterior cingulate cortex influences attentional focus by ‘tuning’ whole-brain metastability and so adjusts how stable brain network activity is over time.