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14.05: Reflexes

reflex is a rapid automatic response to a stimulus. When you accidentally touch a hot object and automatically jerk your hand away, this is a reflex action. It happens without you having to think about it. Animals automatically blink when an object approaches the eye and cats twist their bodies in the air when falling so they land on their paws. (Please don’t test this one at home with your pet cat!).

Swallowing, sneezing, and the constriction of the pupil of the eye in bright light are also all reflex actions.

The path taken by the nerve impulses in a reflex is called a reflex arc. Most reflex arcs involve only three neurons (see diagram 14.4). The stimulus (a pin in the paw) stimulates the pain receptors of the skin, which initiate an impulse in a sensory neuron. This travels to the spinal cord where it passes, by means of a synapse, to a connecting neuron called the relay neuron situated in the spinal cord. The relay neuron in turn makes a synapse with one or more motor neurons that transmit the impulse to the muscles of the limb causing them to contract and remove the paw from the sharp object. Reflexes do not require involvement of the brain although you are aware of what is happening and can, in some instances, prevent them happening. Animals are born with their reflexes. You can think of them as being wired in.

Anatomy and physiology of animals A reflex arc.jpg

Diagram 14.4 - A reflex arc

Conditioned Reflexes

In most reflexes the stimulus and response are related. For example the presence of food in the mouth causes the salivary glands to release saliva. However, it is possible to train animals (and humans) to respond to different and often quite irrelevant stimuli. This is called a conditioned reflex.

A Russian biologist called Pavlov carried out the classic experiment to demonstrate such a reflex when he conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell ringing. Almost every pet owner can identify reflexes they have conditioned in their animals. Perhaps you have trained your cat to associate food with the opening of the fridge door or accustomed your dog to the routines you go through before taking them for a walk.


  • Ruth Lawson (Otago Polytechnic; Dunedin, New Zealand)