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

Updated on January 31, 2019
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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 | Source

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 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 to 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 | Source

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.

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.

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Nganda Nadesh 

        5 days ago

        Wow so wonderful thanks, it has really helped me with my studies.

      • profile image

        Satya prakash 

        6 weeks ago

        Thanks

      • profile image

        kasirye William 

        2 months ago

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

      • profile image

        Rekha 

        2 months ago

        It is very useful.

        Thanks

      • profile image

        Amon 

        3 months ago

        thanks

      • profile image

        Anam 

        3 months ago

        Loved it

      • profile image

        Nithya shree 

        4 months ago

        Very good it helps me know in class 5

      • profile image

        yug gandhi 

        6 months ago

        Very good , help full for my precious class 10

      • profile image

        Poonam Arora 

        8 months ago

        Thanks this help me in my science holiday homework

      • profile image

        finally 

        8 months ago

        thx so much

      • profile image

        Nalungwe b 

        8 months ago

        Thanks u make my work to be complete

      • profile image

        Yeee 

        9 months ago

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

      • profile image

        .... 

        11 months ago

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

      • profile image

        .... 

        11 months ago

        God gave us reflexes, not "evolution"

      • profile image

        cc 

        12 months ago

        good

      • profile image

        Namrata 

        13 months ago

        Helpful

      • profile image

        Sukhpreet kaur 

        14 months ago

        Can u show me this answer in small size

      • profile image

        Nathan Allen. 

        15 months ago

        Thanks, This piece of writing helped me with my Science work. Yes, this post by a year 10 student. Anyway, it helped a lot. Thank you again.

      • profile image

        Nathan Allen. 

        15 months ago

        Thanks,it helped me with my Science work.

      • profile image

        zzzzzzzz 

        15 months ago

        IT"S GOOD

      • profile image

        Gujjar bhai 

        15 months ago

        Excellent helping

      • profile image

        Debasrita das 

        18 months ago

        Too nice

      • profile image

        Bibin 

        18 months ago

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

      • profile image

        Pankaj Kumar Thakur 

        19 months ago

        This is a very helpful

      • profile image

        Yoram Tumwiine 

        20 months ago

        Helpful

      • anatomynotes profile imageAUTHOR

        Edmund Custers 

        20 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Arjun 

        20 months ago

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

      • profile image

        Kobi 

        20 months ago

        This helped so much thank you heaps

      • profile image

        Pooja 

        22 months ago

        Thank u. It helped me.

      • profile image

        Gagan Jain 

        22 months ago

        Really awesome

      • profile image

        Marryam 

        23 months ago

        Really helped me in my assignment

      • profile image

        R.Bala mounika 

        2 years ago

        This is the one of the best article for this topic

      • profile image

        vanshita 

        3 years ago

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

        rply fast

      • profile image

        Simrat randhawa 

        4 years ago

        Awsome

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