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“How do we peek into people’s brains and find out how we make choices entirely on our own?” askedSusan Courtney, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins. “What parts of the brain are involved in free choice?”

The team devised a novel experiment to track a person’s focus of attention without using intrusive cues or commands. Participants, positioned in MRI scanners, were left alone to watch a split screen as rapid streams of colorful numbers and letters scrolled past on each side. They were asked simply to pay attention to one side for a while, then to the other side—when to switch sides was entirely up to them. Over an hour, the participants switched their attention from one side to the other dozens of times.

Researchers monitored the participants’ brains as they watched the media stream, both before and after they switched their focus.

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Image: By John Graner, Neuroimaging Department, National Intrepid Center of Excellence, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, 8901 Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20889, USA. – http://www.frontiersin.org/Neurotrauma/10.3389/fneur.2013.00016/full, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25872800

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