In animals, a very rapid involuntary response to a particular stimulus. It is controlled by the nervous system. A reflex involves only a few nerve cells, unlike the slower but more complex responses produced by the many processing nerve cells of the brain.
A simple reflex is entirely automatic and involves no learning. Examples of such reflexes include the sudden withdrawal of a hand in response to a painful stimulus, or the jerking of a leg when the kneecap is tapped. Sensory cells (receptors) in the knee send signals to the spinal cord along a sensory nerve cell. Within the spine a reflex arc switches the signals straight back to the muscles of the leg (effectors) via an intermediate nerve cell and then a motor nerve cell; contraction of the leg occurs, and the leg kicks upwards. Only three nerve cells are involved, and the brain is only aware of the response after it has taken place. Such reflex arcs are particularly common in lower animals, and have a high survival value, enabling organisms to take rapid action to avoid potential danger. In higher animals (those with a well-developed central nervous system) the simple reflex can be modified by the involvement of the brain – for instance, humans can override the automatic reflex to withdraw a hand from a source of pain.
A conditioned reflex involves the modification of a reflex action in response to experience (learning). A stimulus that produces a simple reflex response becomes linked with another, possibly unrelated, stimulus. For example, a dog may salivate (a reflex action) when it sees its owner remove a tin-opener from a drawer because it has learned to associate that stimulus with the stimulus of being fed.
Integration and Control: How Nervous Systems Work
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