The Nervous System and Endocrine System

What you’ll learn to do: describe the role of the nervous system and endocrine systems


In this section, you’ll learn about the basics of the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord, as well as the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system is comprised of the somatic and autonomic nervous systems. The somatic nervous system transmits sensory and motor signals to and from the central nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls the function of our organs and glands, and can be divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions. Sympathetic activation prepares us for fight or flight, while parasympathetic activation is associated with normal functioning under relaxed conditions. The endocrine system consists of a series of glands that produce chemical substances known as hormones, which produce widespread effects on the body. Got all that? We’ll review each of these systems in the coming pages.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the difference between the central and peripheral nervous systems and the somatic and autonomic nervous systems
  • Differentiate between the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system
  • Describe the endocrine system and explain its primary responsibilities within the body

The Central Nervous System and the Peripheral Nervous System

The nervous system can be divided into two major subdivisions: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), shown in Figure 1. The CNS is comprised of the brain and spinal cord; the PNS connects the CNS to the rest of the body. In this section, we focus on the peripheral nervous system; later, we look at the brain and spinal cord.

Image (a) shows an outline of a human body with the brain and spinal cord illustrated. Image (b) shows an outline of a human body with a network of nerves depicted.

Figure 1. The nervous system is divided into two major parts: (a) the Central Nervous System and (b) the Peripheral Nervous System.

Peripheral Nervous System

The peripheral nervous system is made up of thick bundles of axons, called nerves, carrying messages back and forth between the CNS and the muscles, organs, and senses in the periphery of the body (i.e., everything outside the CNS). The PNS has two major subdivisions: the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system.

The somatic nervous system is associated with activities traditionally thought of as conscious or voluntary. It is involved in the relay of sensory and motor information to and from the CNS; therefore, it consists of motor neurons and sensory neurons. Motor neurons, carrying instructions from the CNS to the muscles, are efferent fibers (efferent means “moving away from”). Sensory neurons, carrying sensory information to the CNS, are afferent fibers (afferent means “moving toward”). Each nerve is basically a two-way superhighway, containing thousands of axons, both efferent and afferent.

The autonomic nervous system controls our internal organs and glands and is generally considered to be outside the realm of voluntary control. It can be further subdivided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions (Figure 2). The sympathetic nervous system is involved in preparing the body for stress-related activities; the parasympathetic nervous system is associated with returning the body to routine, day-to-day operations. The two systems have complementary functions, operating in tandem to maintain the body’s homeostasis. Homeostasis is a state of equilibrium, in which biological conditions (such as body temperature) are maintained at optimal levels.

A diagram of a human body lists the different functions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system can constrict pupils, stimulate salivation, slow heart rate, constrict bronchi, stimulate digestion, stimulate bile secretion, and cause the bladder to contract. The sympathetic nervous system can dilate pupils, inhibit salivation, increase heart rate, dilate bronchi, inhibit digestion, stimulate the breakdown of glycogen, stimulate secretion of adrenaline and noradrenaline, and inhibit contraction of the bladder.

Figure 2. The sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system have the opposite effects on various systems.

The sympathetic nervous system is activated when we are faced with stressful or high-arousal situations. The activity of this system was adaptive for our ancestors, increasing their chances of survival. Imagine, for example, that one of our early ancestors, out hunting small game, suddenly disturbs a large bear with her cubs. At that moment, his body undergoes a series of changes—a direct function of sympathetic activation—preparing him to face the threat. His pupils dilate, his heart rate and blood pressure increase, his bladder relaxes, his liver releases glucose, and adrenaline surges into his bloodstream. This constellation of physiological changes, known as the fight or flight response, allows the body access to energy reserves and heightened sensory capacity so that it might fight off a threat or run away to safety.

Link to Learning

Reinforce what you’ve learned about the nervous system by playing this BBC-produced interactive game about the nervous system.

While it is clear that such a response would be critical for survival for our ancestors, who lived in a world full of real physical threats, many of the high-arousal situations we face in the modern world are more psychological in nature. For example, think about how you feel when you have to stand up and give a presentation in front of a roomful of people, or right before taking a big test. You are in no real physical danger in those situations, and yet you have evolved to respond to any perceived threat with the fight or flight response. This kind of response is not nearly as adaptive in the modern world; in fact, we suffer negative health consequences when faced constantly with psychological threats that we can neither fight nor flee. Recent research suggests that an increase in susceptibility to heart disease (Chandola, Brunner, & Marmot, 2006) and impaired function of the immune system (Glaser & Kiecolt-Glaser, 2005) are among the many negative consequences of persistent and repeated exposure to stressful situations.

Once the threat has been resolved, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and returns bodily functions to a relaxed state. Our hunter’s heart rate and blood pressure return to normal, his pupils constrict, he regains control of his bladder, and the liver begins to store glucose in the form of glycogen for future use. These processes are associated with activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Try It

Think It Over

Hopefully, you do not face real physical threats from potential predators on a daily basis. However, you probably have your fair share of stress. What situations are your most common sources of stress? What can you do to try to minimize the negative consequences of these particular stressors in your life?

The Endocrine System

The endocrine system consists of a series of glands that produce chemical substances known as hormones (Figure 1). Like neurotransmitters, hormones are chemical messengers that must bind to a receptor in order to send their signal. However, unlike neurotransmitters, which are released in close proximity to cells with their receptors, hormones are secreted into the bloodstream and travel throughout the body, affecting any cells that contain receptors for them. Thus, whereas neurotransmitters’ effects are localized, the effects of hormones are widespread. Also, hormones are slower to take effect, and tend to be longer lasting.

A diagram of the human body illustrates the locations of the thymus, several parts within the brain (pineal gland, hypothalamus, thalamus, pituitary gland), several parts within the thyroid (cartilage, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, trachea), the adrenal glands, pancreas, uterus, ovaries, and testes.

Figure 3. The major glands of the endocrine system are shown.

The study of psychology and the endocrine system is called behavioral endocrinology, which is the scientific study of the interaction between hormones and behavior. This interaction is bidirectional: hormones can influence behavior, and behavior can sometimes influence hormone concentrations. Hormones regulate behaviors such as aggression, mating, and parenting of individuals. Hormones are involved in regulating all sorts of bodily functions, and they are ultimately controlled through interactions between the hypothalamus (in the central nervous system) and the pituitary gland (in the endocrine system). Imbalances in hormones are related to a number of disorders. This section explores some of the major glands that make up the endocrine system and the hormones secreted by these glands.

Major Glands

The pituitary gland descends from the hypothalamus at the base of the brain, and acts in close association with it. The pituitary is often referred to as the “master gland” because its messenger hormones control all the other glands in the endocrine system, although it mostly carries out instructions from the hypothalamus. In addition to messenger hormones, the pituitary also secretes growth hormone, endorphins for pain relief, and a number of key hormones that regulate fluid levels in the body.

Located in the neck, the thyroid gland releases hormones that regulate growth, metabolism, and appetite. In hyperthyroidism, or Grave’s disease, the thyroid secretes too much of the hormone thyroxine, causing agitation, bulging eyes, and weight loss. In hypothyroidism, reduced hormone levels cause sufferers to experience tiredness, and they often complain of feeling cold. Fortunately, thyroid disorders are often treatable with medications that help reestablish a balance in the hormones secreted by the thyroid.

The adrenal glands sit atop our kidneys and secrete hormones involved in the stress response, such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). The pancreas is an internal organ that secretes hormones that regulate blood sugar levels: insulin and glucagon. These pancreatic hormones are essential for maintaining stable levels of blood sugar throughout the day by lowering blood glucose levels (insulin) or raising them (glucagon). People who suffer from diabetes do not produce enough insulin; therefore, they must take medications that stimulate or replace insulin production, and they must closely control the amount of sugars and carbohydrates they consume.

The gonads secrete sexual hormones, which are important in reproduction, and mediate both sexual motivation and behavior. The female gonads are the ovaries; the male gonads are the testis. Ovaries secrete estrogens and progesterone, and the testes secrete androgens, such as testosterone.

Try It

Dig Deeper: Athletes and Anabolic Steroids

Although it is against most laws to do so, many professional athletes and body builders use anabolic steroid drugs to improve their athletic performance and physique. Anabolic steroid drugs mimic the effects of the body’s own steroid hormones, like testosterone and its derivatives. These drugs have the potential to provide a competitive edge by increasing muscle mass, strength, and endurance, although not all users may experience these results. Moreover, use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) does not come without risks. Anabolic steroid use has been linked with a wide variety of potentially negative outcomes, ranging in severity from largely cosmetic (acne) to life threatening (heart attack). Furthermore, use of these substances can result in profound changes in mood and can increase aggressive behavior (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2001).

Baseball player Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod) has been at the center of a media storm regarding his use of illegal PEDs. Rodriguez’s performance on the field was unparalleled while using the drugs; his success played a large role in negotiating a contract that made him the highest paid player in professional baseball. Although Rodriguez maintains that he has not used PEDs for the several years, he received a substantial suspension in 2013 that, if upheld, will cost him more than 20 million dollars in earnings (Gaines, 2013). What are your thoughts on athletes and doping? Why or why not should the use of PEDs be banned? What advice would you give an athlete who was considering using PEDs?

Hormones and Behavior

How might behaviors affect hormones? Extensive studies on male zebra finches and their singing (only males finches sing) demonstrate that the hormones testosterone and estradiol affect their singing, but the reciprocal relation also occurs; that is, behavior can affect hormone concentrations. For example, the sight of a territorial intruder may elevate blood testosterone concentrations in resident male birds and thereby stimulate singing or fighting behavior. Similarly, male mice or rhesus monkeys that lose a fight decrease circulating testosterone concentrations for several days or even weeks afterward. Comparable results have also been reported in humans. Testosterone concentrations are affected not only in humans involved in physical combat, but also in those involved in simulated battles. For example, testosterone concentrations were elevated in winners and reduced in losers of regional chess tournaments.

People do not have to be directly involved in a contest to have their hormones affected by the outcome of the contest. Male fans of both the Brazilian and Italian teams were recruited to provide saliva samples to be assayed for testosterone before and after the final game of the World Cup soccer match in 1994. Brazil and Italy were tied going into the final game, but Brazil won on a penalty kick at the last possible moment. The Brazilian fans were elated and the Italian fans were crestfallen. When the samples were assayed, 11 of 12 Brazilian fans who were sampled had increased testosterone concentrations, and 9 of 9 Italian fans had decreased testosterone concentrations, compared with pre-game baseline values (Dabbs, 2000).

In some cases, hormones can be affected by anticipation of behavior. For example, testosterone concentrations also influence sexual motivation and behavior in women. In one study, the interaction between sexual intercourse and testosterone was compared with other activities (cuddling or exercise) in women (van Anders, Hamilton, Schmidt, & Watson, 2007). On three separate occasions, women provided a pre-activity, post-activity, and next-morning saliva sample. After analysis, the women’s testosterone was determined to be elevated prior to intercourse as compared to other times. Thus, an anticipatory relationship exists between sexual behavior and testosterone. Testosterone values were higher post-intercourse compared to exercise, suggesting that engaging in sexual behavior may also influence hormone concentrations in women.

Link to Learning

Learn more about endocrinology from The Noba Psychology article, “Hormones and Behavior.”

Try It

Think It Over

Given the negative health consequences associated with the use of anabolic steroids, what kinds of considerations might be involved in a person’s decision to use them?


adrenal gland: sits atop our kidneys and secretes hormones involved in the stress response
autonomic nervous system: controls our internal organs and glands
central nervous system (CNS): brain and spinal cord
diabetes: disease related to insufficient insulin production
endocrine system: series of glands that produce chemical substances known as hormones
fight or flight response: activation of the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system, allowing access to energy reserves and heightened sensory capacity so that we might fight off a given threat or run away to safety
gonad: secretes sexual hormones, which are important for successful reproduction, and mediate both sexual motivation and behavior
homeostasis: state of equilibrium—biological conditions, such as body temperature, are maintained at optimal levels
hormone: chemical messenger released by endocrine glands
pancreas: secretes hormones that regulate blood sugar
parasympathetic nervous system: associated with routine, day-to-day operations of the body
peripheral nervous system (PNS): connects the brain and spinal cord to the muscles, organs and senses in the periphery of the body
pituitary gland: secretes a number of key hormones, which regulate fluid levels in the body, and a number of messenger hormones, which direct the activity of other glands in the endocrine system
thyroid: secretes hormones that regulate growth, metabolism, and appetite
somatic nervous system: relays sensory and motor information to and from the CNS
sympathetic nervous system: involved in stress-related activities and functions