The Centers: Doing, Feeling & Thinking

Maybe you know someone who tends to:

  • Jump in head first
  • Take the bull by the horns
  • Shoot first and ask questions later

Or someone else who’s more likely to:

  • Wear his heart on his sleeve
  • Have a heart of gold
  • Pour his heart out

Or another person who:

  • Has her head in the clouds
  • Lives in a world of her own
  • Suffers from “analysis paralysis”

Some people are quick to act or speak without thinking or taking other people’s feelings into consideration. Doing comes naturally to them. Some people feel things deeply themselves and are able to sense how others feel. Feeling comes naturally to them. And some people seem to spend the majority of time in their heads rather than in the so-called real world. Thinking comes naturally to them.

In Enneagram lingo, Doing, Feeling, and Thinking refer to different kinds of intelligence—different ways of absorbing, processing, and reacting to stimuli from our internal and external worlds. The idea of three different kinds of intelligence appeared to be supported by neuroscientist Paul MacLean’s theory that each of these types of intelligence is associated with a different part of our brain. 


According to his Triune Brain theory, which he developed in the 1960s, basic survival instincts are based in the basal ganglia. Because this part of the brain evolved first, it is sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain. In crisis situations, it can override the higher parts of the brain to help us survive.

The Doing center is sometimes referred to as the Gut center. Here’s something interesting about the “gut” from the field of neurogastroenterology:  “The gut can work independently of any control by the brain in your head—it’s functioning as a second brain.” So says Michael Gershon, professor and chair of pathology and cell biology at Columbia. “It’s another independent center of integrative neural activity.” [Psychology Today 11/01/11]


Feelings or emotions are based in the limbic system, which is a term introduced by MacLean in the 1950s. Although the Triune Brain theory is considered out of date, the concept of the limbic system has gained wide acceptance.

These comments on two aspects of emotional intelligence are excerpted from Daniel Goleman’s book of the same name, but they come from psychologist Howard Gardner: “Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to understand other people: what motivates them, how they work, how to work cooperatively with them. Intrapersonal intelligence…is a correlative ability, turned inward. It is a capacity to form an accurate, veridical model of oneself and to be able to use that model to operate effectively in life.”


Reasoning (thinking) takes place in the neocortex, the most recently developed part of the human brain. The neocortex is responsible for high-level functioning such as language, logic, and abstraction, but it doesn’t tend to respond well under stressful conditions.

This humorous (or not) excerpt from The Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel shows the difference between emotional intelligence and cognitive intelligence: “A frustrated wife looked at her confused husband and said, ‘You never understand what I am talking about. All you know is what you have learned in books. You couldn’t read my face if your life depended on it!’ To this challenge, the man responded, ‘I can tell from what you say that you’re probably not happy with me. But, you know, there are two kinds of people in this world: those who are too needy, and those who aren’t.’”

Even before MacLean developed his Triune Brain theory, G.I. Gurdjieff referred to humans as “three-brained creatures.” He assigned to the “centers” he observed in people approximately the same functions MacLean did to the three parts of the brain. Furthermore, Gurdjieff claimed people do not necessarily use these centers equally or appropriately. “Man number one” uses predominantly what I call the Doing center; “man number two” uses predominantly the Feeling center; and “man number three” uses predominantly the Thinking center.

Of course, the different parts of the brain are not actually separate from one another. They interact all the time. And of course, we use all three Centers of Intelligence; we just don’t always use them effectively or appropriately. Each of us has a preferred method of viewing and responding to the world and reacting to what happens. And whatever that method is, it feels natural. It’s our “go to” response, whether or not it’s the best one for the situation at hand. As Abraham Maslow said, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Favoring one center over the others is how we get out of balance—and, very often, into trouble. It’s one of the basic theories underlying the Enneagram.

Using the Centers of Intelligence

Here’s an exercise you can use to get in touch with how—and how often—you access the different Centers of Intelligence. Click here to print a copy of the Using the Centers of Intelligence  worksheet. It has four circles, each one waiting to be turned into a three-piece pie chart: one piece to represent Doing, one piece to represent Feeling, and one piece to represent Thinking.

If I were to make a pie chart of how I use the three centers when I’m writing a blog post, the largest piece would represent Thinking, another good-sized piece would represent Doing, and a small slice would represent Feeling. On the other hand, when I’m sitting in the chair in my bedroom in the morning with a mug of coffee next to me and my cat sitting in my lap purring, the biggest piece of the pie would represent Feeling, a medium-sized piece would represent Thinking, and the smallest piece would represent Doing.

You can use this simple exercise for situations or activities from the past or present and even situations you haven’t experienced yet. Which Center of Intelligence do you rely on most often?


4 responses to “The Centers: Doing, Feeling & Thinking

  1. I’m thinking that this exercise would be a great way to introduce Centers of Intelligence to my students in preparation for other Enneagram related material. Getting them to start “thinking” about how they use the Centers may help pique their interest not only in how they do things, but then comparing their own patterns with those of their friends.

  2. That sounds like a great idea as an entry into the material: coming at it from a personal angle and not a strictly conceptual one. I like it!.

  3. Pingback: Something from Nothing: The Creative Process | Nine Paths

  4. Pingback: Patterns of Motion | Nine Paths

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