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 Article 6

Monsieur Gurdjieff, 

the Psychology of Common Sense

and Neurosciences

Part three

Let us imagine, to begin with, that we are observing it from a certain height. We can immediately note that it is subdivided into various ‘counties’, marked by broad valleys separated from each other by long chains of mountains.

Observing from closer up, these counties can be seen to consist of numerous ‘boroughs’, in the form of smaller valleys, separated by low hills. But the boroughs, too, are made up of various ‘wards’, formed of small gullies or dips in the mental landscape.


So, what we are looking at is a very complex structure (a physicist would call it ‘fractal’), made of valleys containing other valleys, containing other valleys, containing other valleys, and so on, on a smaller and smaller scale. Furthermore, the entire territory is covered with an intricate communication network: motorways, roads, bridges and canals, and sometimes long tunnels too, which, passing through the mountains, allow communication between the different counties. 


Finally, we can imagine that each of the ‘wards’ making up the ‘boroughs’ of the mental landscape has a specific function to exert, from one of the following three categories: intellectual, emotional or motory.


And so the following dynamic set-up is outlined.


At each moment in our life, the imaginary ‘dot’ representing our ‘current mental state’ moves within our CS Region and can be found in a certain county, made up of a number of towns, in turn made up of wards assigned to specific duties, be they motory, emotional or intellectual (possibly at the same time, but always following certain priority regulations). From there, the dot can move along the routes of communication, either within the same county or moving to another county through a tunnel, and so on and so forth.

The really interesting thing in this scenario, which we will look at in more depth in a moment, is that it constitutes an optimal reference chart to demonstrate the deep connection between Gurdjieff’s psychological system and the more recent acquisitions of modern ‘Cognitive neuroscience’, and at the same time highlighting the limits of the Psychology of Common Sense (PCS) – whose body is just that, ‘common sense’, and whose roots are in classic psychology – which today continues to condition our interpersonal relations and social behaviour strongly, often leading us to commit clumsy errors of evaluation.

So let’s try to redefine the mental landscape above.

First of all, we should point out that, in adhering to this particular conception of our psychological make-up, both G and N considered our personality (in the sense of our

PCS, in other words our ‘Self’, our ‘Me’ or our ‘Ego’) not as a single entity (as we are used to thinking of and perceiving it) but as fragmented into multiple elements, what G called ‘small momentary mes’ and what, according to N, we can define as ‘cognitive domains’.


In reality, in the variegated context of the Neurosciences, the definitions are also multiple – Francisco Varela calls them ‘microworlds’, Michael Arbib calls them ‘schemes’, Marvin Minsky ‘agents’, Gerald Edelman ‘neuronal groups’, Paul Churchland ‘prototypes in the space of the hidden units’, and Charles Tart ‘states of consciousness’ – but for our purposes we can consider them all to be practical equivalents and thus use the single term ‘cognitive domains’ (we can also tell you that, remaining within the context of the Neurosciences, our mental landscape metaphor is no longer just a metaphor, but becomes a precise mathematical and computational model, which describes in a growingly realistic and satisfactory way our biological and cognitive processes).


Within the CS Region these ‘momentary mes’ or ‘cognitive domains’, as you prefer, correspond with our territorial ‘wards’, each, as we have seen, associated with a specific category of functions, or what G called ‘centres’: the ‘motory’ centres correspond to ‘motor cognitive domains’, the ‘emotional’ centres correspond to ‘emotional cognitive domains’ and the ‘intellectual’ centres correspond to ‘intellectual cognitive domains’ or ‘logic-symbolic domains’.


Taken as a whole, these three types of cognitive domain are part of the so-called ‘ontogenetic cognitive domains’, i.e., the cognitive domains that – as G himself observantly noted – they are learnt by the individual in the course of his or her existence through interaction with the surrounding environment and with other individuals.


To these are added another group of cognitive domains, the ‘filogenetic cognitive domains’, learnt not at an individual level but – through the evolutionary process – at a ‘species’ level, and manifested in the individual as ‘instincts’ or as body auto-regulation functions: in our mental landscape they correspond to pre-existing valleys in what we originally defined as a plain, but which actually already includes ‘reliefs’ characteristic of our species from birth. These are attraction basins and boundary lines of a particular form, which all individuals of a given species share in that they originate from the DNA modifications imposed by natural selection. G referred to these using the term ‘instinctive centres’.



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