What happens when your healthcare provider taps on your knee with a rubber mallet? Your leg kicks forward, seemingly on its own. And in a sense, your leg has a mind of its own—in your spinal cord.
When the mallet hits your knee, it stretches the tendon just below the kneecap. That causes a signal to travel along a nerve to your spinal cord. There, a waiting motor neuron sends out an automatic command to contract the muscle attached to the tendon. When the muscle contracts, your leg kicks.
You are born with such “hard-wired” reflexes. Most are located in the spinal cord. But some are in the motor centers of your brain. They work to protect your body from injury. And they also form the basis for more complicated physical activities, such as standing, walking, or riding a bike.
Your brain gets involved by modifying and fine-tuning reflex actions. For example, when you trip and fall, reflexes automatically command your hands and arms to reach out and break your fall. Muscles will contract throughout your body to minimize injury. But what if you were carrying a priceless object, say, a Ming vase? Would you drop the vase in order to use your hands to break the fall?
Not necessarily, experts say. Within 10 to 30 milliseconds after tripping, the conscious motor centers of the brain would take control of the fall. They weigh the chances of breaking the vase versus breaking your neck.
If the object in your hands is important enough to you, you can modify the reflex action and keep a grip on the vase.
Reflexes do play a role in reaction time. Some people are born with faster reflexes. Electrical impulses actually travel more quickly through their nerves. But you can also speed up nerve conduction through practice.
A soccer player, for example, can improve his running or kicking. In doing so, his knee jerk might get faster. But those kinds of improvements are specific to the activity. A soccer player's feet and legs might develop faster nerve conduction than average. But if that same soccer player were to have a contest of finger speed with a classical pianist, the pianist would win, hands down.
The real key to reaction time is practice. By repeating the same movements, you make them almost automatic. That's why professional baseball players can dive to catch a sizzling line drive. And it’s also why once you learn to ride a bike, you never forget.
These actions aren’t classical reflexes. But with so much practice, your movements almost mimic a reflex. They are motor skills that have been etched into your nerves and brain so that those motor pathways are almost reflexive.
Reflexes do slow with age. Physical changes in nerve fibers slow the speed of conduction. And the parts of the brain involved in motor control lose cells over time. But the effect of age on reflexes and reaction time varies greatly from person to person. You can actually slow down—even reverse—the effects of aging by staying physically active.
Remember the saying: If you don't use it, you'll lose it.