Gurdjieff International Review

The Study of Attention and the Centres

P. D. Ouspensky

To begin self-study it is necessary to study methods of self-observation, but that must be based on a certain understanding of the divisions of our functions...


Just observe, without any guessing, and observe only what you can see. From this you may come to the conclusion that you have four definite minds. One mind controls intellectual functions, another quite different mind controls emotional functions, a third controls instinctive functions, and a fourth, again quite different, controls moving functions. We call them centres: intellectual centre, emotional centre, moving centre and instinctive centre. They are quite independent. Each centre has its own memory, its own imagination and its own will...


We have no means of seeing centres, but we can observe functions: the more you observe, the more material you will have. This division of functions is very important. Each function can be controlled only if we know the peculiarities and the speed of each...


A centre is divided into three parts: intellectual part, emotional part and moving or mechanical part... It is very easy to distinguish these three parts when we begin to observe ourselves. Mechanical parts do not need attention. Emotional parts need strong interest or identification, attention without effort or intention, for attention is drawn and kept by the attraction of the object itself. And in the intellectual parts you have to control your attention.

When you get accustomed to control attention, you will see at once what I mean. First the character of the action will show you which centre you are in, and then observation of attention will show you the part of centre.

It is particularly important to observe the emotional parts and to study the things that attract and keep the attention, because they produce imagination. Study of attention is a very important part of self-study, and if you begin to observe this division of centres into parts, in addition to the division of centres themselves, it will give you the possibility of coming to smaller details and will help you to study attention...

Sometimes people can control their attention and do interesting work without knowing anything about self-remembering. Although controlled attention is very close to self-remembering, there is a difference. Attention can be in only one centre, whereas self-remembering needs the work of three or even four centres.

Maurice Nicoll

Each centre is divided into three parts and each of these parts into three further parts... Each centre reflects itself and the others in its three divisions and three sub-divisions. For example, the Intellectual Centre has three divisions which represent the Instinct-Moving Centre, the Emotional Centre, and the Intellectual Centre itself, but all on a smaller scale. And these again are subdivided in the same way on a still smaller scale.

The Instinct-Moving part of any centre is the most mechanical part and it is in these mechanical divisions of centres that people spend their lives as a rule. But before we speak in detail about divisions of centres in general, one principle must be grasped relating to their divisions. Why do people spend their time in mechanical divisions of centres? The answer is simply that they require no attention. When attention is practically zero, one is in the lowest most automatic parts of centres...


To get to the higher divisions of centres the effort of attention is necessary. This is the principle...


Attention puts us into better or more conscious parts of centres. Attention is of three kinds:

1. zero-attention, which characterizes mechanical divisions of centres;

2. attention that does not require effort, but is attracted and needs only the keeping out of irrelevant things;

3. attention that must be directed by effort and will.

The first kind of attention, zero-attention, accompanies the work of mechanical divisions of centres; the second kind puts us into the emotional divisions of centres, and the third kind into the intellectual divisions. Let us take briefly the Intellectual Centre again as an example...

The emotional part of the whole Intellectual Centre consists chiefly of the desire to know, the desire to understand, to seek knowledge, to discover, the desire for truth, the pleasure of learning, of reaching out; and, inversely, the pain of not knowing, the dissatisfaction of being ignorant, uninformed, and so on. The work of the emotional part requires full attention, but in this part of the centre attention does not require any effort. It is attracted and kept by the interest of the subject itself. The intellectual part of the whole Intellectual Centre includes a capacity for creation, construction, finding methods, seeing connections, and bringing together apparently isolated things into an order or unity or formulation so that we can see the truth of something hitherto obscure. This part cannot work without directed attention. The attention in this part is not attracted but must be controlled and kept by effort and will; we usually avoid doing the work belonging to this part of the centre, which is thus often unused.

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These excerpts are from two books: P. D. Ouspensky, The Fourth Way, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957, pp. 3, 8, 54, 61–62; and Maurice Nicoll, Psychological Commentaries, London: Vincent Stuart, 1957, pp. 69–71. Some sentences and phrases have been removed for brevity.

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Featured: Fall 2013 Issue, Vol. XII (1)
Revision: November 1, 2013