How the Peripheral Nervous System Works

What does the peripheral nervous system do?

Verywell / Gary Ferster 

What exactly is the peripheral nervous system and what role does it play in the body? First, it is important to realize that the nervous system is divided into two parts: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.

The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord, while the peripheral nervous system includes all of the nerves that branch out from the brain and spinal cord and extend to other parts of the body including muscles and organs. Each part of the system plays a vital role in how information is communicated throughout the body.

What Is the Peripheral Nervous System?

The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is the division of the nervous system containing all the nerves that lie outside of the central nervous system (CNS). The primary role of the PNS is to connect the CNS to the organs, limbs, and skin. These nerves extend from the central nervous system to the outermost areas of the body.

The peripheral system allows the brain and spinal cord to receive and send information to other areas of the body, which allows us to react to stimuli in our environment.

The nerves that make up the peripheral nervous system are actually the axons or bundles of axons from nerve cells or neurons. In some cases, these nerves are very small but some nerve bundles are so large that they can be easily seen by the human eye.

The peripheral nervous system itself is divided into two parts: the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system.

Each of these components plays a critical role in how the peripheral nervous system operates.

The Somatic Nervous System

The somatic system is the part of the peripheral nervous system responsible for carrying sensory and motor information to and from the central nervous system. The somatic nervous system derives its name from the Greek word soma, which means "body."

The somatic system is responsible for transmitting sensory information as well as for voluntary movement. This system contains two major types of neurons:

  • Motor neurons: Also called efferent neurons, motor neurons carry information from the brain and spinal cord to muscle fibers throughout the body. These motor neurons allow us to take physical action in response to stimuli in the environment.
  • Sensory neurons: Also called afferent neurons, sensory neurons carry information from the nerves to the central nervous system. It is these sensory neurons that allow us to take in sensory information and send it to the brain and spinal cord.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic system is the part of the peripheral nervous system that's responsible for regulating involuntary body functions, such as blood flow, heartbeat, digestion, and breathing.

In other words, it is the autonomic system that controls aspects of the body that are usually not under voluntary control. This system allows these functions to take place without needing to consciously think about them happening. The autonomic system is further divided into two branches:

  • Parasympathetic system: This helps maintain normal body functions and conserve physical resources. Once a threat has passed, this system will slow the heart rate, slow breathing, reduce blood flow to muscles, and constrict the pupils. This allows us to return our bodies to a normal resting state.
  • Sympathetic system: By regulating the flight-or-fight response, the sympathetic system prepares the body to expend energy to respond to environmental threats. When action is needed, the sympathetic system triggers a response by accelerating heart rate, increasing breathing rate, boosting blood flow to muscles, activating sweat secretion, and dilating the pupils.
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Additional Reading
  • Eyesenck, M.W. Simply Psychology. New York: Taylor & Francis; 2012.

  • Coon, D. & Mitterer, J. O. Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior With Concept Maps. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2010.