Virtually all of us have had the experience of getting our reflexes tested. The doctor lightly taps a tendon with a reflex hammer which elicits a quick contraction and causes a quick jump in the body part being tested. An example would be tapping the inferior patellar tendon which causes the well-known knee jerk response. Every tendon in the body can be examined this same way. A normal response indicates a healthy nerve supply to that tendon, whereas an absent contraction indicates something wrong, possibly a pathology. Reflex has been defined as “the power of responding with adequate speed without the intervention of conscious effort.” In other words, it’s automatic. As a youngster, when I first discovered this, it was fun to check out the reflexes of my brothers and sisters.
Some reflexes are natural, inborn and protective, like the blink reflex that can save your eye from an approaching projectile, or the gag reflex to protect your throat. There’s even what I call the “hot stove” reflex which causes an immediate recoil away from a hot burner rather than having to wait for the smell of burning tissue to know something’s wrong.
Other reflexes are conditioned or programmed by repetition, training, practice, and drilling. Pavlov, the noted Russian physiologist, found that a repeated association with even an artificial stimulus can cause a reflex or response. In working with dogs, he rang a bell, followed immediately with supplying food. He discovered that after that programming, when he rang the bell, it caused the dogs to salivate, even when no food was provided. It’s similar for athletes. They practice daily so they get to the point where they react automatically and are able to recover a ball or block a pass without taking the time to add up the pros and cons or weigh the consequences. Their reflexes are trained to act immediately, correctly, and automatically.
The secret is repetition, they drill and practice. Have you ever watched a baby learning to walk? It’s laborious; they are unsure, unstable, and make plenty of mistakes. They also have lots of falls until it becomes programmed into a reflex. Imagine if we had to think of every step we take our whole life. Much of what we do each day is programmed into a reflex such as work requirements, driving, sports, and now texting.
There are also negative reflexes. I remember reading about an elderly man who was in the hospital being treated for emphysema and lung cancer after many years of chain smoking. He literally wore a hole in the chest pocket of his pajamas by repeatedly reaching for the pack of cigarettes that wasn’t there. You see, that is what he’d practiced and drilled for years and it now came naturally, even automatically to him.
Another name for reflexes is habits. We can use the process to our advantage, making actions that are beneficial to our health an automatic, knee jerk-like response. Like other reflexes, good habits take repetition, drills, and practice. Here are just a few practices you can transform into healthy reflexes to improve your life.
Buckle that seat belt. Floss daily. Drink plenty of water instead of soda. Downsize your portions, use a smaller plate, and never supersize. Forgive readily. Express gratitude. Smile often. Eat breakfast. Exercise daily. Breathe deeply. Cut back on TV and computer usage. Take the stairs. Connect with nature.
If over time you have developed bad or unhealthy habits or reflexes, you can retrain yourself through repetition, practice, and drills. It’s a little like learning to walk again, but soon becomes second-nature, even automatic. It’s no small thing because as John Dryden said, “We first make our habits and then our habits make us.”