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To investigate how we orient our spatial attention, previous studies have recorded neural activity while participants are instructed where to attend. Here we contrast this classical instructed attention condition with a novel condition in which the focus of voluntary attention is not specified by the experimenter but rather is freely chosen by the participant. Central cues prompted fixating participants either to choose which of two peripheral spatial locations to covertly attend or formed an instruction. Either type of cueing initiated selective attention demonstrated behaviorally by enhanced performance at a visual detection task in comparison to a separate divided attention condition. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure which areas were more active during choice than instruction. Choosing where to attend activated a large cluster of medial frontal cortical regions similar to those that have been previously implicated in the free selection of overt action. We then addressed a potential confound in contrasting choice with instruction: participants may remember their behavior more when choosing. In a separate block, and interleaved with choice trials, "memory" trials were introduced in which participants were instructed to remember where they had attended on the previous trial. The presupplementary eye fields and lateral frontal eye fields were specialized for choice-guided attentional orienting over and above any memory confound. This evidence suggests a common mechanism may underlie free selection, whether for covert attention or overt saccades.

Original publication




Journal article


J Neurophysiol

Publication Date





1397 - 1406


Adult, Attention, Brain Mapping, Choice Behavior, Cues, Female, Frontal Lobe, Humans, Image Processing, Computer-Assisted, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Male, Oxygen, Space Perception, Task Performance and Analysis