An anonymous reader quotes a report from ExtremeTech: Free will might have been the province of philosophers until now, but we’ve cracked the problem with an fMRI. Neuroscientists from Johns Hopkins report in the journal Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics that they were able to see both what happens in a human brain the moment a free choice is made, and what happens during the lead-up to that decision — how activity in the brain changes during the deliberation over whether to act. The team devised a novel way to track a participant’s focus without using cues or commands, avoiding a Schrodinger’s-like dilemma of altering the process of choice by calling attention to it. Participants took positions in MRI scanners, and then were left alone to watch a split screen as rapid streams of colorful numbers and letters scrolled past on both sides. They were asked just to pay attention to one side for a while, then to the other side. When to switch sides, and for how long to look, was entirely up to them. Over the duration of the experiment, the participants glanced back and forth, switching sides dozens of times. In terms of connectivity in the brain, the actual process of switching attention from one side to the other was tightly linked with activity in the parietal lobe, which is sort of the top back quadrant of the brain. Activity during the period of deliberation before a choice took place in the frontal cortex, which engages in reasoning and plans movement. Deliberation also lit up the basal ganglia, important parts of the deep brain that handle motor control, including the initiation of motion. Participants’ frontal-lobe activity began earlier than it would have if participants had been cued to shift attention, which demonstrates that the brain was planning a voluntary action rather than merely following an order. A report from Fast Company details how technology is making doctors feel like glorified data-entry clerks.
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