Gurdjieff # 1 – Three Brains

Dr. Charles Tart


Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 4, Part 7 of 18 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

Student: You can only handle as much pleasure as you can pain.

CTT: Sounds like a cool idea. I have no idea whether it’s true or not!

Student: But I mean, it seems like if you start trying to approach every situation with equanimity, do you eventually just dull your emotions so that you can’t experience pleasure?

Another Student: Yes, my question too.

CTT: Now you’re really focusing on an important part of the pathology. You can give yourself a sort of forced equanimity. If you basically just hold the lid down on your feelings, then you’re going to start losing things.

Now this is where Gurdjieff made the unique contribution with his concept of emotional intelligence. We’re just getting the idea of emotional intelligence in modern psychology, but Gurdjieff was talking about it 50, 75 years ago.

Gurdjieff’s basic idea is that we have three brains, he called them. I think “brains” was, you know, a good scientific-sounding word to pass muster in those times, but we can call it three processes if we don’t want to physiologize it and run down the physiological correlates of it.

So let’s say you’ve got three distinctive processes. The analogy I like is that each one of us is a ruler, and we have three advisers who give us advice about what’s happening in the kingdom and how to do something about it.

But, according to Gurdjieff, practically all human beings’ development was warped such that they basically only really listen to one adviser, they didn’t pay much attention to the other two advisers. The one adviser might be very smart, very glib, but this was a person who saw things through their particular biases. The other two advisers, because they’d been neglected and ignored, and often actively suppressed, tended not to be heard or had gotten kind of neurotic about their views.

So Gurdjieff talked about the intellectual brain, which you all have developed quite well, or you wouldn’t have made it this far in the educational system. The intellectual brain’s got words – boy, has it got words! – concepts and theories, and putting things together, and talks really, really good.

But Gurdjieff also talked about the emotional brain, or the emotional center, whose job was to look at the world and have an emotional reaction that represented an assessment of what that part of the world was about. It was an information-gathering and decision-making process, and the decision – the evaluation – was presented to us in the form of an emotion.

Same thing with the body as the third kind of advising process. The body also takes in information about the reality around us and presents its conclusions to us in a pattern of feelings.

Now ideally, all three of these processes are well developed. They’ve been nourished. They’ve been educated. They’ve been experimented with to know how to use them best. So we’re all great rulers, because we have three smart advisers giving us three different perspectives on every situation, from which we then make some kind of final decision.

But the problem that Gurdjieff said we have is, again, that one of these advisers has risen to over-prominence, and that’s the only one we listen to. Some people live life through their emotions, for example. What they feel is 99% of what matters in a situation, and they don’t give it much verbal thought, and they don’t pay much attention to their body except for the bodily correlates of their emotions.

Some other people live life primarily through their bodies. You meet resistance, you push it aside! Something like that, you know what I mean? Emotions and thinking don’t matter very much. Other people – especially in the academic world – think verbally about problems and situations.


  1. Dr Tart, what happens when the three processes don’t agree?

    Let’s say the physical one has noticed that whenever it does something, something else always occurs in reaction to that particular something. And the intellectual process has watched what the physical process has been up to and is trying very hard to figure it all out.

    It’s all fine and good until the intellectual process starts to realize that what the physical process has been doing doesn’t fall into the generally accepted view of all the other intellectually processes in the neighborhood’s understanding of what is supposed to occur in reaction to that particular something that the physical process has been doing. But the intellectual process does it’s best to just look at this as an opportunity to learn something new and gets on with the business of trying to figure the whole thing out…

    But before that can occur, the emotional process starts yelling, “NO! NO! NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and the poor intellectual process can’t hear himself think well enough to get any work done at all.

    What happens then, Dr Tart?

    1. What happen then? Ah, I’m afraid it’s like life.

      Life is peachy when all our sources of information, our thoughts, our feelings, agree on a course of action. But lots of time in life they don’t. Like our leaders have lots of advisers, who too often have contradictory opinions. Ideally our leaders wisely make the best guess and act — and then hopefully learn from it and get wiser when they find they’ve made the wrong choice. That’s what we have to do….

      I know this is nowhere near as satisfying as some Fundamentalist religion that claims “Our Holy Book has all the Answers for Everything.”

      1. I’m not expecting a fundamentalist religion to do that for me, but I had kind of hoped maybe a good physics textbook would be helpful.

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