Voluntary and Involuntary Actions

Given such a highly interconnected and complicated neuroanatomical basis for the motor system, it is difficult to use the phrase voluntary movement with any real precision. We shall use it, however, to refer to those actions that have the following characteristics: (1) The movement is accompanied by a conscious awareness of what we are doing and why we are doing it rather than the feeling that it "just happened," and (2) our attention is directed toward the action or its purpose.

The term "involuntary," on the other hand, describes actions that do not have these characteristics. "Unconscious," "automatic," and "reflex" are often taken to be synonyms for "involuntary," although in the motor system the term "reflex" has a more precise meaning (Chapter 7).

Despite our attempts to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary actions, almost all motor behavior involves both components, and the distinction between the two cannot be made easily. Even such a highly conscious act as threading a needle involves the unconscious postural support of the hand and forearm and inhibition of the antagonistic muscles—those muscles whose activity would oppose the intended action, in this case, the muscles that straighten the fingers.

Thus, most motor behavior is neither purely voluntary nor purely involuntary but falls somewhere between these two extremes. Moreover, actions shift along this continuum according to the frequency with which they are performed. When a person first learns to drive a car with a standard transmission, for example, shifting gears requires a great deal of conscious attention, but with practice, the same actions become automatic. On the other hand, reflex behaviors, which are all the way at the involuntary end of the spectrum, can with special effort sometimes be voluntarily modified or even prevented.

We now turn to an analysis of the individual components of the motor control system, beginning with local control mechanisms because their activity serves as a base upon which the pathways descending from

Vander et al.: Human Physiology: The Mechanism of Body Function, Eighth Edition

Control of Body Movement CHAPTER TWELVE

Control of Body Movement CHAPTER TWELVE

the brain exert their influence. Keep in mind throughout these descriptions that motor neurons always form the "final common pathway" to the muscles.

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