How to Find Our Inner Voice: The “Top-Down” and “Bottom-up” Processing

When I was a teenager, I thought I was “smart but dumb.” I couldn’t understand how despite being so intelligent I’d make such poor life choices. In the early 90s, without internet, I couldn’t google “how do I find my inner voice”. So, I’d ask friends about it, my dad’s wife, my aunts. But they didn’t help much.

Today I know we can find our inner voice with science: by knowing what information we hold in our brains, and how our brain processes that information.

Let’s make this fun.

Between Two Opposite Inner Voices

Knowing I was smart, but feeling I was so dumb, I’d think, “What’s wrong with me?” Like Indiana Jones in the final puzzle of the “Last crusade,” I used to jump from “I don’t know” to “probably yeah,” and then to “nope” and “Oops, I did it again.”

I began asking people for advice, whenever I’d needed help to decide and avoid the “Oops, I did it again.” And they would always tell me, “Listen to your heart.” (Ugh) 

I’d reply, “What does it mean? Give me a proper answer! Is it something I need to feel?” (And let me tell you, Roxette coming out with the “listen to your heart, when he is calling for you,” made me consider my musical choices.)

So, that didn’t help much. 

Whenever I’d have to make a decision, I used to have this issue:

  • Something in me was telling me, “I really want to do this!”
  • While another part of me was saying, “Mmm. better don’t do that.”

Did I have two inner voices? If so, which one was right?

Passion Vs. Purpose

Let’s pretend two things1

  • one, that we can wrap up all the information our brain has in two categories: purpose and passion. 
  • and two,
    • that our “passion” is information we’ve gathered sort of naturally 
    • that our “purpose” is information we’ve worked on.

Purpose and passion are simply names I came up with to distinguish easily what scientist say.

Now, Those two categories are in two different parts of our brain: in the back bottom, and in the upper front. And they compete.

“Bottom-Up” and “Top-Down” Processing

“Bottom-up” and “Top-Down” processing, are scientific terms to explain how our brain processes information (according to most scientists)

When we are trying to make a decision, those two parts begin chatting with each other: 

  • the “bottom-up processing” (which kicks in automatically, like “right away”) says, “Let’s do it! I really want this!” 
  • and the “top-down processing” says (hopefully), “Wait. Let me check if I can allow it.”

Therefore, I had in fact two voices.

Let’s break it down with a couple of examples.

Example: The People Vs. Madonna

I grew up in the 80s surrounded by women who’d tell me that, “Men can be bad, and cheat. Women must put up with it. It is the way it is and has been.”

That “information” was stored in the back bottom of my brain (sort of speak) Those “teachings”, took root in my brain becoming a habit to choose bad boys. I wanted to choose a good one, but my intention wasn’t that strong.

So, every time I’d meet a gorgeous bad boy, he’d become the project I could fix and the torture I’d have to endure. (Because I was woman, and that’s how things were)

Then I discovered “Madonna”, and she’d tell me to “express myself”, to be strong. I wanted to follow her advice because it seemed according to my own beliefs of how a woman should live her life. 

However, “old habits die hard”. So, even though a little voice within me started saying, “Choose the good boy,” I couldn’t answer to it.

Needless to say, it took me a long time to erase what the women in my life had taught me and to embrace my own beliefs, my own way of living and my path to happiness.

This is important:

The brain grows from the back bottom to the upper front. And as we grow, we begin storing information there (sort of speak) So, our passion, that kicks in automatically, will be stronger. 
It is our job to work on our goals and beliefs, so that they can win the fight.

We are to take as much as we need to see where is the balance.

Because… our “passion” may not always be bad. Cue for another example!

Parting Vs. Saving Money

Let’s say I’ve been working a lot so I could save money to buy a new computer, which I really need for my work. 

But I get an invite to a super cool party, and, what’s the harm? A friend will pick me up and bring me back home. I won’t spend money “at all” and I deserve some fun!

The party was mind-blowing, and so was the hunk my friend hooked up with. Now it’s 3am, and how do I get back home? 

My instinct wisely says, “take a cab, it would be dangerous to walk back home.” My instinct is correct, but it collides with my goal of saving money.

So how would I get out from that crossroad?

By avoiding it in the first place.

I had put a “bet” on the fact that I wouldn’t spend money. Why would I bet when I have an important goal?

This is specially important for those of us with ADHD. We tend to not see beyond what’s happening now, what we want now.

How Do I Find My Inner Voice

Whenever I need to make a decision and I feel the two parts in my brain are driving me insane, I let them talk… And I wait… 

Then, when I feel at peace with the result of that chit-chat, when I feel there is no more doubt, that is when I act.

And if I need to make a decision “now”? Well, if I have my purpose very clear, and I know which of my instincts are correct, the time to reflect will certainly be shorter.

So, if you think about it, that “Listen to your heart” response, wasn’t that wrong. When I feel my heartbeat is normal, when I stop feeling the doubt punching my chest, that is when I know I’ve found my inner voice.


  1. These concepts have been explained based on Dr. Klijnjan’s “Bases neurobiológicas implicadas en el comportamiento” [PPT] Carrera de Posgrado en Psiquiatría ↩︎

About Laly York

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