Psychological System

A psychological system, or psychological functional system, is a distributed coherence of mental faculties.


Luria's work is founded on a systemic understanding of psychological phenomena. He described a functional system as follows (1963, p. 35):

The view has often been expressed in the literature that the term “function” implies two totally different concepts. On the one hand it may denote the direct and manifest activity of a tissue (the secretory functions of the glands, the contractile function of muscle, and so on); in this sense the “function” naturally is characteristic of and inseparable from the particular tissue; the tissue cannot change its function nor take on a new one.

On the other hand the term “function” may have a completely different meaning when we speak of “functions” as the basic form of adaption of the living organism to its environment and the principal manifestations of its vital activity. Expressions such as the “respiratory functions”, the “digestive function” or the complex “locomotor functions” and, finally, the still more complex “psychological functions” (speech, writing, and so on) have a quite different meaning. We are concerned here with complex adaptive activity (biological at some stages of development and socio-historical at others), satisfying a particular demand and playing a particular role in the vital activity of the animal. A complex adaptive “function” such as this will usually be executed by a group of structural units and, as Anokhin (1947) showed, these will be integrated into a “functional system.” The parts of this system may be scattered over a wide area of the body and united only in the execution of their common task (for example, respiration or locomotion). Between these parts there is a pliable yet strong temporary connexion, uniting them into one system and synchronizing their activity. This “functional system” works as a complete entity, organizing the flow of excitation and co-ordinating the activity of individual organs.

Leont'ev (2009, p. 286) adopted the term "functional organ" as a cognate of functional system:

I must stress that it is quite justified to use the concept ‘organ’ in this context. More than 30 years ago Ukhtomsky suggested the existence of ‘physiological organs of the nervous system’, in which connection he wrote: "The concept ‘organ’ is usually thought of as something morphologically distinct and constant with constant, static attributes of some sort. It seems to me that this is quite optional, and that it would be characteristic of the spirit of the new science not to see anything obligatory in it."

The functional organs in question are clearly different to such formations as, for instance, the chain conditioned reflexes that under-lie so-called mechanical habits, differing from them as regards both their origin and dynamics, and the character of their functioning.

They are not formed through the production of associations that simply ‘copy’ the sequence of external stimuli, but are the product of the linking of reflexes into an integral system that has a highly gener-alised and qualitatively special function. The reflexes entering into a new connection with one another are initially relatively independent reactions with developed effector nerve endings and feedback affer-entares. As soon as they combine, however, their effector links are inhibited and reduced, and operate as internal, intracentre, brain processes. Although the number of purely peripheral effects does not thereby entirely disappear and they can always be detected by suffi-ciently delicate research, they lose their independent adaptive effect, however, since they now operate in reduced form, and consequently the possibility of being directly reinforced. Reinforcement or non-reinforcement can now only apply to the effect of the final link of the system being formed; once having arisen, these systems are thus al-ready, thereafter, regulated as a single whole.

Vygotsky (1997, p. 107) stressed the import of systemic understandings in his work:

... I would like to express my fundamental conviction that the entire issue resides not just in the changes within the functions, but in the changes in the connections and in the infinitely diverse forms of development that develop from this. It resides in the development of new syntheses in a certain stage of development, new central functions and new forms of connections between them. We must take interest in systems and their fate. Systems and their fate -- it seems to me that for us the alpha and omega of our next work must reside in these four words.


A psychological System is the "how" aspect of a psychological function. It is the organisation of processes, which may be either theoretically conceptualised or denoted neurologically.

A psychological system and psychological function may be recursively used. However, system is often used to refer to the largest organisation pertinent to the study whilst function may refer to the contributing effects stemming from a component of this system (i.e. the contributing effects of a sub system).


Leontyev, A. N. (2009) The Development of Mind: Selected Works of Aleksei Nikolaevich Leontyev. Ohio: Bookmasters, Inc. Retrieved August 13, 2013, from

Luria, A. R. (1963) Restoration of Function After Brain Injury. Oxford, New York: Pergamon Press

Vygotsky, L. S. (1997) On Psychological Systems. In: R. W. Rieber & J. Wollock (eds.), R. Van Der Veer (trans.) The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky, Vol. 3: Problems of the Theory and History of Psychology. New York: Plenum Press


-- HuwLloyd - 26 Nov 2013
Topic revision: r3 - 10 Dec 2013, HuwLloyd

This site is powered by FoswikiCopyright © by the contributing authors. All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
Ideas, requests, problems regarding Foswiki? Send feedback