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Reflex Action and Reflex Arc: What Happens When You Accidentally Touch a Hot Pot

Edmund has spent the last ten years working in clinical research. He has written many articles on human anatomy and physiology.

Reflex action and reflex arc when a cook touched a hot pot by accident.

Reflex action and reflex arc when a cook touched a hot pot by accident.

Reflex Action and Reflex Arc

Reflex is a special ability that evolution gifted us to facilitate our survival. Whenever part of your body comes in contact with an object capable of causing you harm, you tend to quickly withdraw that part of the body. This happens before your brain gets the time it needs to process the threat.

Reflex Action

If you accidentally touch a hot pot on your stove while cooking, you would involuntarily (and nearly instantaneously) snatch your hand away from the pot. This response is called a ‘reflex action'.

Reflex Arc

Contact with the hot pot triggers the start of a series of events in the body to evoke a response.

At the point of contact with the hot pot, skin receptors quickly send nerve impulses (electrical) to the spinal cord (central nervous system) via sensory neurons. In the spinal cord, the impulses are processed, and a response is relayed back.

In the spinal cord, the interneurons (also known as relay neurons) make the connections between the sensory neurons (bringing the message from the hand) and the correct motor neurons (taking the response back to the hand). It would not be useful if the response was sent to the wrong part of the body—in this case, a response sent to the leg wouldn't be too helpful as the stimulus is coming from the hand.

From the interneurons, the response is relayed to the motor neurons which project out of the spinal cord to stimulate your muscles (effector) to contract, causing you to snatch your hand away from the hot pot. This pathway taken by nerve impulses to elicit a response is known as a ‘reflex arc’.

This process happens so fast that the response occurs before the message reaches the brain. This results in a quicker time-to-response as the thinking process of the brain may be relatively time-consuming.

Diagram to illustrate a reflex arc.

Diagram to illustrate a reflex arc.

Components of a Reflex Arc

The Stimulus

In the above example, the stimulus is the contact with the hot pot. This contact causes a nerve impulse that will travel to the spinal cord via the sensory neurons. Another example of a stimulus is an object (e.g. an insect) approaching your eye causing you to blink before you know it.

Sensory Neurons

These neurons carry the nerve impulse to the spinal cord. Similar to the interneuron and motor neuron, sensory neurons receive incoming impulses at the dendrites. The impulses move away from the cell body along the axon to the synaptic terminal where the impulse is sent to the next neuron (the interneuron) with the help of a neurotransmitter (acetylcholine).

The Spinal Cord

Interneurons (also known as relay neurons) are fully contained in the central nervous system (the spinal cord and the brain). The interneuron serves as the connection between the sensory neurons and the motor neurons.

The synapse is a tiny space between two neurons. When an impulse gets to the end of one neuron and has to be sent down the next neuron, the synapse acts as a bridge. The signal arrives at the end of one neuron (close to the synapse) as an electrical signal, crosses the synapse as a chemical signal (with the help of a neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine released by the synaptic vesicles at the synaptic terminal) and continues as an electrical signal in the next neuron.

Motor Neurons

In the 'hot pot' example above, motor neurons send nerve impulses away from the central nervous system to effector organs or muscle fibers. This causes the muscle fibers to contract, resulting in you snatching your hand away from the hot pot.

If the stimulus was at the sight of an insect flying towards your eyeball, then the motor neurons would relay the response back to your eyelids (to close) to protect them from the approaching threat.

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The Response

This occurs when the motor neurons deliver nerve impulses from the spinal cord to the part of the body where a response to the stimulus is needed. In the above example, the response is the muscle contraction to quickly pull the hand away from the hot pot. In the second example, the response is to blink to prevent the insect from making contact with the eye.


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hi on February 03, 2020:

Hi the same time as the 50th anniversary

Vic on October 27, 2019:

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Janeth on October 15, 2019:

Love it

Katalo j on October 07, 2019:

In class

Bhat rashid on July 05, 2019:

Thanks this article had helped me lot

Kanav sharma on May 22, 2019:

What will happen if you touch the hot pot ?

Yusuf on April 26, 2019:

It is very useful to every one thanks to the author

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this is really very good article, l 'd teach my fellows about reflex arc.

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Helped me a lot with my Science homework. Thanks!!!

.... on March 23, 2018:

But good article! I forgot to say that for the last comment I submitted.

.... on March 23, 2018:

God gave us reflexes, not "evolution"

cc on February 07, 2018:


Namrata on January 14, 2018:


Sukhpreet kaur on December 07, 2017:

Can u show me this answer in small size

Nathan Allen. on November 20, 2017:

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Debasrita das on August 06, 2017:

Too nice

Bibin on August 06, 2017:

Why do you immediately remove your hand on touching a very hot object?

Pankaj Kumar Thakur on July 05, 2017:

This is a very helpful

Yoram Tumwiine on June 22, 2017:


Edmund Custers (author) on June 19, 2017:

Hi Arjun, thank you reading and leaving a comment. I'll try to answer your question. Pain that is still detected much later is most likely because there was significant damage done during the contact. In this case nerve fibers would still be sending messages to the brain from the location of the injury. The brain is kind of telling you to treat the affected area with care.

Arjun on June 18, 2017:

Why do we detect pain much later even after removing our hand??

Kobi on May 31, 2017:

This helped so much thank you heaps

Pooja on April 15, 2017:

Thank u. It helped me.

Gagan Jain on April 10, 2017:

Really awesome

Marryam on March 27, 2017:

Really helped me in my assignment

R.Bala mounika on December 15, 2016:

This is the one of the best article for this topic

vanshita on August 22, 2015:

if the stimulas is touching the hot vessel then what is the response?

rply fast

Simrat randhawa on November 21, 2014:


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