Scientists observing brain activity is not new, but the latest study conducted by Johns Hopkins researchers, in which “free will” was observed in the brain for the first time, marks a first. Where other brain imaging studies watch people respond to cues or commands, this study reveals the brain in action while the individual makes choices entirely on their own.


The findings, which pinpoint parts of the brain involved in decision-making and action, were recently published in the journal Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics.

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

brain illustration
An illustration of the human brain indicates where researchers found activity relating to free-will decisions. (Credit: Johns Hopkins University)

The team devised a novel experiment tracking 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.

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