B6.3 Can reflex responses be learned?
A reflex is an automatic response to a stimulus.
Although they are not conscious actions, reflex responses to a new stimulus can be learnt by introducing the secondary (new) stimulus in association with the primary stimulus and this is called conditioning.
Conditioning works by building an association between the new stimulus and the stimulus that naturally triggers the response – conditioned reflex action.
Pavlov (a Russian scientist) trained dogs to expect food whenever he rang a bell – the dogs eventually produced saliva when they heard the bell ring.
In a conditioned reflex, the final response has no direct connection to the stimulus.
Conditioned reflexes are a form of simple learning that can increase an animal’s chance of survival – for example – birds will not eat caterpillars with bright colouring because they are conditioned to think of bright colours as poisonous.
In some circumstances the brain can modify a reflex response – it does this by sending an impulse along a motor neuron of the reflex arc. For example this enables us to hold onto a hot plate when the hand comes into contact with something hot its natural reflex is to drop it.