Similar to knee-jerk or withdrawal, are there any innate reflexes in cognition? Are they based on personality, or are there any that are universal?


2 Answers 2


There are 2 common definitions of "reflex":

The technical definition of "reflex" is an action that is not voluntary - ie, not mediated by cognition. From Wikipedia:

... sensory neurons do not pass directly into the brain, but synapse in the spinal cord. This characteristic allows reflex actions to occur relatively quickly by activating spinal motor neurons without the delay of routing signals through the brain ...

So asking if there are any mental or cognitive reflexes is like asking if there are any behaviours that go through the brain that don't go through the brain.

The colloquial definition of "reflex" is an automatic or involuntary action, like the way an experienced tennis player reacts to the ball without thinking. In cognitive psychology, this is typically referred to as "unconscious" (rather than reflex) action. Some authors have compared conscious to unconscious using the iceberg metaphor, so if you prefer the lay definition, then the number of mental reflexes far outweighs voluntary actions. The entire field of perception (just as a simple example) would be included.

  • $\begingroup$ This answer is one example where the definition of conscious, subconscious and unconscious reactions become blurry. The reflex actions of a tennis player may be unconscious psychologically but neurologically they are conscious otherwise the reflex actions wouldn't occur. $\endgroup$ Nov 28, 2016 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Chris Anything I can do to clarify the answer? I'm not sure what you mean by "neurologically they are conscious", since neurologically we don't really know anything about consciousness. Consider blindsight for example: "... the ability of people who are cortically blind ... to respond to visual stimuli that they do not consciously see." (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blindsight) - a simple example of action taking place without conscious awareness. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Nov 29, 2016 at 0:17

Bearing in mind the point raised by @AaronWeinberg, there are certainly cognitive processes that are automatically elicited for a given stimulus.

In no particular order, the following can be considered automatic responses to certain stimuli:

  • Motion transients
  • Edge detection in V1
  • Auditory irregularity detection (for instance that which elicits mismatch negativity)
  • Reading (it's essentially impossible to stare at a word and not read it)
  • $\begingroup$ I would like to dispute your last claim. When the mind is wandering, something happens that is called perceptual decoupling, which means people are less capable in perceiving information. It is entirely possible to read an entire page and not knowing what you've read afterwards. $\endgroup$ Nov 29, 2016 at 6:16

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