Specific regulatory states, i.e., sets of expressed transcription factors, define the gene expression capabilities of cells in animal development. Here we explore the functional significance of an unprecedented example of regulatory state conservation from the cnidarian Nematostella to Drosophila, sea urchin, fish, and mammals. Our probe is a deeply conserved cis-regulatory DNA module of the SRY-box B2 (soxB2), recognizable at the sequence level across many phyla. Transphyletic cis-regulatory DNA transfer experiments reveal that the plesiomorphic control function of this module may have been to respond to a regulatory state associated with neuronal differentiation. By introducing expression constructs driven by this module from any phyletic source into the genomes of diverse developing animals, we discover that the regulatory state to which it responds is used at different levels of the neurogenic developmental process, including patterning and development of the vertebrate forebrain and neurogenesis in the Drosophila optic lobe and brain. The regulatory state recognized by the conserved DNA sequence may have been redeployed to different levels of the developmental regulatory program during evolution of complex central nervous systems.