Understanding the 4 Core Brain Systems

The brain is considered one of our most precious assets, yet it’s often the most neglected. Everything we do, from waking up in the morning to complex problem solving at work, is processed in some way by the brain. While we may not think much about how our brains react to certain situations, understanding the brain’s key capacities and potential hijack risks will help you target and train the new habits that get you what you want.

The brain’s 85 billion highly interconnected neurons self-organize into 4 core systems: emotion, feeling, cognition, and self control. Each of these systems is then measured by 12 key capacities, and they fluctuate continuously along a performance continuum from well-being to mental health brain hijack risk to peak performance. Mental health hijack risks include sleep apnea, anxiety, depression, ADHD, social phobia, PTSD, addiction, and mild cognitive impairment, and these risks hinder performance along with the way you think or act. Understanding the brain’s core systems will help you change the way you think to reduce mental health hijack risks and increase peak performance.


Emotions drive feelings, cognition, and self control. Your brain non-consciously processes risk vs. reward cues, and it does so within a fifth of a second. Emotion key capacities include awareness, negativity bias, and default emotions.


Feelings are the subjective experience of your emotions and conscious awareness of changes in heart rate, breathing, and sweat in response to your emotions. Feeling key capacities include anxiety, stress, and depression.


Cognition is conscious rational processing and decision making. Your conscious brain provides rationalizations for these snap judgements and biases triggered by your emotions and feelings, and seeks an alignment between your intuitive emotions and rational cognition. Cognition key capacities include memory, focus, and planning.

Self Control

Self control is the regulation of all these functions to be the most effective you can be. Combining your emotion, feelings, and cognition, your self control determines how you react to the situation. Self control key capacities include social connectivity, resilience, and conscious bias.

To help put all this information into perspective, think about the emotional feeling of anxiety. An estimated 40 million Americans over the age of 18 are affected by anxiety.1 A common reaction to feeling anxious may include breathing faster and increased heart rate. When anxiety takes effect, your brain then needs to analyze these thoughts through cognition to focus and plan what to do next. Based on how your brain has assessed this situation, your self control then determines how you act in response to these feelings and emotions.

In many instances, someone with anxiety will begin to panic with worrying thoughts racing through their head. However, by understanding these four systems and how your brain reacts to them, you can begin to train your brain to react in the way you want it to. Practice meditation to calm your nerves, or take a thought that is causing you anxiety and learn to re-evaluate and minimize those thought patterns before they become out of control. With proper brain training, you can increase your understanding and awareness and take control of the situation.

The same brain insights and new habit generation of stress control in anxiety, can also be used to rewire any of your twelve key brain capacities, to optimize your wellbeing and performance in all situations.

1. https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
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