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The Orienting response, also called orienting reflex, is an organism's immediate response to a change in its environment, when that change is not sudden enough to elicit the startle reflex. The phenomenon was first described by Russian physiologist Ivan Sechenov in his 1863 book Reflexes of the Brain, and the term was coined by Ivan Pavlov, who also referred to it as the "Shto eto takoi?" reflex ("Shto eto takoi?" is an emphatic way of asking "What is it?"). The orienting response is a reaction to novelty. In the 1950s the orienting response was studied systematically by the Russian scientist Eugene Sokolov, who documented the phenomenon called "habituation", referring to a gradual "familiarity effect" and reduction of the orienting response with repeated stimulus presentations.(1)
When people see a bright flash or light or hear a sudden loud noise, they pay attention to it even before they identify it. This orienting reflex seems to be present from birth. It is useful in helping people react quickly to events that call for immediate action.
This reflex can be controlled by the cerebral cortex, but more typically it is controlled by subcortical brain regions.
1. E. N. Sokolov, Neuronal models and the orienting reflex, in Mary A. B. Brazier, ed., The Central Nervous System and Behavior, NY: JosiahMacy, Jr. Foundation, 1960, pp. 187-276