What is human consciousness?

Tagged: , , , , ,

  • What is human consciousness?

    Posted by Franklin on September 26, 2020 at 4:10 pm

    A big problem about discussing consciousness is identifying exactly what you are talking about. A lot of people associate consciousness with any intelligent behavior exhibited by all complex animals. So dogs can exhibit consciousness and there is a lot of talk about all those common processes. But I think that when specifically discussing “human consciousness”, I mean the internal monologue that we hear in our human minds that happens when we are thinking and solving problems. When we have a problem like “what color should I paint my house”, the answer doesn’t just magically pop into our head – we hear this lengthy internal and complex discussion about the pros and cons of the various options. “That” is what I identify as “human consciousness” and that is what we should be discussing on how that works – not how all animals experience things like fears and can feed themselves. I specifically propose that human consciousness is intimately associated with language and if you didn’t have that internal monologue, you wouldn’t be considered conscious. For example, if you get hit and are knocked out, we call that state “unconscious” and the only difference is the lack of the internal monologue. I do propose how this actually works in my paper: http://franklinhu.com/CurrencyOfThoughtCNPS2018.pdf This paper argues that neural networks tag experiences to specific language word tokens and those tokens are manipulated to create a stream of consciousness which is conducted in a human language.

    What do you think? Is human consciousness something unique and can only be executed within the context of a language or not?

    Josh replied 2 years ago 6 Members · 14 Replies
  • 14 Replies
  • Alistair

    September 26, 2020 at 4:15 pm

    What makes you think no animals have internal dialogues?

    They can exhibit observable indecisiveness. Is that not evidence of an internal dialogue taking place as options are weighed?

    You can literally directly observe this cat choosing whether it would succeed or not succeed.


    • Franklin

      September 27, 2020 at 3:49 am

      I would absolutely assert that animals have NO internal dialog which is similar to what people use. I know that people like to point stuff like this out and try to deliberately stomp out the role of language in consciousness, but I think this is completely wrong. Let me be clear, the ability to think intelligently and make decisions is absolutely common in all life forms. But when we talk of “human” consciousness (which is what I think we are really interested in), this totally depends upon the unique (in the animal world) complex spoken language that only humans use.

      Now there are some edge cases like George points out with people who think in pictures. Probably most animals think in this manner so that that when the cat is “thinking” about how to make the jump, they are imagining the various possible outcomes in visual terms. But they are not thinking something in their mind like “If I jump and knock over the vase and make my owner mad.” That is only something the humans do and they do it exclusively through a language process.

      I think this entire line of reasoning of trying to assign a human like consciousness to animals is just wrong because it takes the attention away from what we normally call human consciousness and mixes is up with things like plants turning to the sun and calling that “consciousness”. I know you’re saying “but animals can think!” – I am not debating that. I am telling you that humans think in a very different way than animals. You and all others like you are trying so hard to deny that. By denying it, you make it totally impossible to understand how humans use language to create human consciousness by denying the very critical role of language. It is like trying to learn the piano, but first being told that you can’t use your hands.

      Why do you deny the role of language in conscious thinking? Isn’t it obvious that it is that internal monologue is a full blown discussion with yourself that allows you to solve problems the same way you would by talking to someone? There is no real difference whether you talk to yourself or someone else to solve or think about problems.

      And NO, trained animals don’t have range of language tokens that people do. Maybe they can handle a few dozen at most, not the nearly 30,000 words of a native speaker. What they can do is still very simple monkey see, monkey do or simple parotting. These are very minor edge cases and do not come close to matching the thinking ability exhibited by humans by using languages such as English.

      So, clearly NO, animals do not have an internal dialog like people do. As a result, what they can think about is extremely limited compared to what humans can do. Can you imagine a cat reciting the concepts in even this paragraph?

      • Alistair

        September 30, 2020 at 11:35 am

        The way I am perceiving your intent is to say “If you use words, you are more specialler”.

        I hear that.

        I understand that.

        If that fairly represents what you suggest. “If you use words, you are more specialler”. And thus get to wear the “conscious” badge of honour (Humans only).


        I see consciousness as happening in concepts. Not letters, or digits or pictures. All of those are just methods of cataloging the underlying concepts.

        It is the concepts that are important. Not the cataloging.

        It is the content of the books. Not the cards that tell you where to find them, that are the “concepts that make consciousness”.


        I would say…

        IF you reason and contemplate and plan and plot and scheme and devise and love and hate and get angry and get sad and get mournful and hopeful and despairing and concerned and frightened and anticipatory and calm and excited and agitated and placated and tentative and brave, and a whack of other things… all of which some animals do.

        THEN you are a member of the group “species with conscious individuals”.


        If my understanding of your position is wrong, please feel free to replace my impression of your “hypothesis statement” with a correct hypothesis statement. That better represents your position.


        Accurate successful communications is defined as the successful conveyance and the successful receipt of a concept or series of concepts.

        Communication happens in many forms. Verbal, body language, proximity variation, movement patterns, noises created within or without, and others. All of which convey concepts.

        I would suggest trying to see the concepts behind the words you use, see if you see them as just words. Or whether you use them as “symbolic”.


        When I say “rose”, how would you describe what I conveyed without using the word.

        • Franklin

          September 30, 2020 at 3:47 pm

          This is why I emphasize as the topic of this discussion – what is “human” consciousness. Not what is dog consciousness or plant consciousness or any other kind of intelligent thinking processes.

          So, yes, you are correct that I think that you are “specialer” if you use words in your thought processes. Indeed, we are obviously special in that respect. I want to set aside that special kind of consciousness that only appears to happen in humans as “human consciousness”.

          Now if you want to assign the word “consciousness” to anything that performs intelligent activities, I can’t stop you. But you might as well assign consciousness to your cell phone. I personally disagree with that.

          Maybe that is what bugs me the most about these consciousness researchers is that they try so hard to make the argument that humans are not special – which is what you seem to want to do. So you concentrate your efforts on all of these non-human or non-linguistic intelligent tasks which is totally not interesting at all.

          As for me, I am in interested in “human consciousness” – the internal monologue that only humans have which uses a very complex natural language vocabulary. If you’re not interested in that, then I’d say you were in the wrong business.

          Specifically in terms of your reply:

          “I see consciousness as happening in concepts. Not letters, or digits or pictures. All of those are just methods of cataloging the underlying concepts.

          It is the concepts that are important. Not the cataloging.

          It is the content of the books. Not the cards that tell you where to find them, that are the “concepts that make consciousness”.

          If you’re talking about a “dog” or a “monkey” that is certainly how it works. If you are talking about people, then we can assign concepts which we initially perceive through our senses to particular language tokens such as “car” and “blue”. We can then manipulate these tokens to string together new concepts such as “the car is blue”. If we ask the question “what color is my car”, we can retrieve the answer by referring to “the car is blue” as a matter of just manipulating the tokens of the language. In this way the “cataloging” becomes very important as a way of permanently keeping track and retrieving of complex abstract concepts. If you think only concepts are important, then this would be like a library, but with no card catalog to be able to quickly find and use what you need. I would disagree with you in that human consciousness is more like the direct manipulation of the card catalog in order to draw information from the vast storehouse of the library in an efficient manner. The card catalog is the actual medium through which consciousness happens. We don’t directly manipulate the concepts, but we directly manipulate the words in the language in our mind. That is why we “hear” the internal monologue doing its thing of constantly manipulating the symbols of the language to relate abstract concepts.

          I would say your definition of consciousness as only being concepts is just plainly wrong. It is too wide and I think it wrongly includes animals IMHO. It definitely doesn’t explain how “human consciousness” works.

          So, that is why the topic of this thread is “human consciousness” – not animal kingdom consciousness. Humans are “specialer” (in your terms). We go well beyond what dogs and cats can do, so can we discuss that – how humans work?

          • Alistair

            September 30, 2020 at 9:57 pm

            I see.

            This was the last line of your original post.

            “What do you think? Is human consciousness something unique and can only be executed within the context of a language or not?”


            To: “Is human consciousness something unique?”.

            – I specifically think “No”.

            To: “Can it only be executed within the context of a language or not?”.

            – I specifically think language is only another form of conveyance of concepts, and in the mind it is the processing of concepts that is thinking and consciousness.


            My reasons. My thinking that you specifically asked for, was addressing “is human consciousness unique”.

            Since uniqueness was being discussed, I had to relate human consciousness to other species consciousness in order to be able to discuss uniqueness.

            But then you objected… “Don’t talk about other species”.

            Wait, what?/?/?

            What happened to “is human consciousness unique”.


            I am starting to feel that instead of a discussion of whether human consciousness is unique, you want a discussion where the premise is:

            – “Ye Shalt accept that humans are unique”

            – “Ye Shalt question not that humans are unique, or be told that was not the topic of discussion”


            But that is not what I signed up for when replying. Was it.

            If we are to discuss whether human consciousness is unique, but not be allowed to compare human consciousness to other species, then we aren’t endeavouring to discuss.

            I will bid you well in continuing your pursuit without me. I cannot continue under the current parameters.

  • George

    September 26, 2020 at 9:57 pm

    Franklin, I agree that for most people, thinking occurs in word. However for many autistic individuals ,including those who have verbal language, their thoughts are in the form of pictures. The well known professor Temple Grandin, who is autistic and verbal, has given talks on how all her thinking is in pictures. She has stated that she doesn’t think in words. In my work with autistic youth I have asked them how they think. I always receive the answer that they think in pictures.

    • Franklin

      September 27, 2020 at 4:09 am

      I think it is very important to stick with “how most people think” rather than get distracted by rare edge cases like you describe. Clearly, if a human was raised by wolves, they could act intelligently to stay out of danger and feed themselves. Language is not required to do that. All animals are able to do that. But only humans use this extremely wide range of vocalizations which allows the encoding and transmission of very abstract concepts. While we humans don’t have to use that, I think we have become extremely dependent upon that mode of thinking in words, to the point where we have this constant self monologue going on in our heads constantly. I think that this is what most people refer to as “consciousness”. Mixing that up with lower level non-linguistic intelligent behavior is just a distraction having nothing to do with what most people would call consciousness. As I mentioned in the previous post, using examples like this to deny the role of language in consciousness is not productive. Although, this is exactly what most “experts” in the field of consciousness do. They spend all their time and experiments on showing how you can do “thinking” without using language and utterly ignore the topic of how you can use language to do thinking. This completely backwards in my opinion. I am just trying to turn the tide on this backwards and nonproductive line of research in consciousness.

  • George

    September 27, 2020 at 4:37 am

    I do not agree with your view of those who use pictures in thinking. To me that is a far more advanced form of thought. This is why the vast majority of geniuses throughout history have been identified as autistic., including Newton. They have an enormous mental advantage over the neuro typical population.

    • Franklin

      September 28, 2020 at 2:17 am

      I would certainly disagree with you that thinking in pictures is a “higher” level of thought. It is clearly a “lower” level of thought which all animals likely possesses. That all intelligent animals possess such a thinking method makes it the lower base level of thought processes. The things you can come up with like the DNA structure is fantastic, but that doesn’t rank it as a higher level of thought.

      Your response once again tries desperately to discount or practically eliminate the role of language in conscious thought by bringing up some counterexamples. Instead of asking how thinking could proceed using language as the medium, you haul out yet another tired and irrelevant example of thinking that doesn’t require language.

      Let me make it clear that I think there is a clear confusion between what we call “thinking” and what we call “consciousness”. All forms of “thinking” are NOT “consciousness”. It is pretty clear that you and other researchers bring up all these non-linguistic thought processes and you somehow misleadingly call that “consciousness” when that has absolutely nothing to do with the novel experience that people have when they hear their internal monologue in a human language – which I think is what most people really mean when they ask the question of “What is consciousness”? They’re not taking about monkeys, dogs and cats, they are talking about people and that voice they hear in their head when they are making complex decisions. But you and other researchers literally talk about monkeys, dogs and cats.

      I think that people just immediately go up in arms when I start suggesting that human thinking requires the use of the language. They seem to think that I only think that “thinking” can happen with the use of language. That is why they then immediately bring up all these edge case counterexamples of thinking processes which clearly do not involve any linguistic ability. But none of those things have anything to do with how the vast majority of regular people think and make decisions. Nothing.

      So it is extremely frustrating for me to see all the researchers in this field crowd around this idea that you can completely disregard language as the medium or the “currency” (as I call it in my paper) of thought. So instead of trying to see how that might work and asking questions about how that could arise on a pile of random neurons and make real progress towards emulating that on something like a computer, you instead drag up yet another irrelevant counterexample of non-linguistic thought. Sure, there is non-linguistic types of thought, but that is DEFININTELY not how people who possess complex natural languages operate. But everyone keeps going down this dead-end non-linguistics approach. It is almost as if you deliberately don’t want to understand how consciousness works by only looking at these non-linguistic approaches.

      • Josh

        February 10, 2022 at 5:04 pm

        You put a significant amount of weight upon linguistics in developing your model of what consciousness is. Words, undoubtedly shape how we think as we generate constructs (words) to describe what it is that we are thinking, and one can argue the expansion of vocabulary has increased our ability to think and thereby increase our ability to communicate to others. While all of that is good, it does not address the human consciousness question. Chomsky described his LAD, which states that we are innately designed for speech, a reported hallmark of higher functioning beings. This can be evaluated by analyzing neuroarchitecture, not all levels of consciousness are the same. Animals who have advanced architecture such as von economo neurons certainly process things internally with their own form of reason. These animals may not have formed an alphabet and created poetry ( as far as we know) but the internal process is there as evidenced by fMRI. We all should be careful in how we measure the intelligence and consciousness of animals, especially when the scales we create are based upon human physiology. Using those standards it is possible that we would label an alien space traveling species as not having a conscience.. I digress . Humans have the highest functioning neural architecture on our planet, and this remains so even in the absence of language ( spoken) or the ability to hear it. The internal dialog may be less colorful or exacting due to the lack of descriptive modifiers ( words) but yet it remains present in reasoning and thought. As to the question of what is consciousness is a rather complex one. In my opinion, the first step to understanding humam consciousness is to eliminate instinctual impulses from the equation of reasoning. An example would be emotions, fight or flight reflexes, maternal instincts ( natural law as well.. according to my research) as well as all presynaptic settings. Our reasoning individual mind sits atop of those impulses, engaging in a tug of war over action. Involuntary vs voluntary mind if you will. I wrote a book on this subject, although there is much more we need to know in order to isolate what human consciousness is, although I am fairly certain that it is not dictated by speech.. only assisted.

  • James

    October 1, 2020 at 9:32 pm

    I distinguish between mental awareness and what I have experienced as consciousness (conscious awareness or consciousness expansion). Everyone in this group is discussing mental awareness and without any hesitation equating that with consciousness. Outside of this discussion group, scientists, psychologists, academics in general and even those in the ‘spiritual community’ (eg. Yoga, Tai Chi, and etc.) also fail to distinguish between mental awareness and consciousness.

    I am sure that some practitioners of yoga and other ‘spiritual’ disciplines have experienced an awakening of consciousness (consciousness expansion), and realized it was clearly distinct from mental awareness but failed to communicate that distinction because of the limitations of language. How does one communicate a phenomenon that has no linguistic depiction?

    Based on my experience I have defined consciousness as direct awareness of existence unfiltered through mind (mind/brain/body) and the content of mind. Through my experience of consciousness along with this new linguistic way of describing/defining it I assert that consciousness is NOT the mind, of the mind or any aspect of mind. Consciousness does not think, cannot think, is not the space between thoughts and is not ‘no mind’. Consciousness SEES and KNOWS but does not think/analyze. Even though the process that most often leads to consciousness awakening involves physical and mental effort (mental focusing) as practiced by dedicated yogis when consciousness is experienced/realized there is no need to focus, quell or refine the thinking process because consciousness doesn’t even have the capacity to think.

    Please share if you have experienced consciousness as described above? After hearing from you I will share much more about what I have experienced in my meditations leading to consciousness expansion and the methods used to achieve consciousness expansion.

    • Franklin

      October 3, 2020 at 2:24 am

      Well, no, I don’t experience consciousness like that at all. In fact, I have no idea what you are talking about. All of that guru pie in the sky stuff just doesn’t cut it with me. I take the exact opposite stance which is to say that thinking is done in language. Language is what allows the complex thinking that only humans can do using a language and is indispensable for that process.

      I would prefer we have a discussion about that could work. That may lead to the production of systems which can be emulated in a computer and allow the creation of a truly sentient and conscious mind. This would be a mind which we could not distinguish from our own and can communicate like any normal person.

      Yoga will not lead us to enlightenment in this area.

      • James

        October 3, 2020 at 3:59 pm

        The only one assuming guru status is you. Worse, you defend your mind religion with cheap insults. You admit to never experiencing the consciousness I describe and to having no idea what I am talking about but dismiss it with the curiosity of a very closed and fragile mind. Your response is a very sad commentary on the Natural Philosophy Society, created by a man unafraid of exploring beyond the boundaries of accepted dogma.

        I’d love to hear from anyone unafraid of the ‘mental’ boundaries that have been erected around the discussion of consciousness. Mental awareness is of the mind (mind/brain) and is very worthy of research. However, there is a conscious awareness that is independent of mind that opens up windows to existence untouchable by mind. I have explored that existence and I am sure others have as well, although perhaps only as a very young child.

  • Jerry

    December 9, 2021 at 10:18 pm

    Hi. I’ll start with a quote by Stephen Hawking (some of which Pink Floyd actually recorded on their last album).

    “For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

    I thought this seemed a somewhat appropriate place to start or continue. This above quote seems quite intriguing. However, is it actually that simple, or completely the truth?

    To consider again, other animals often have a high level of awareness, though, of course, don’t seem to compare with the same capacity as human beings.

    What about Koko the Gorilla? (here’s a quote I found online) “It was reported that Koko understood approximately 2,000 words of spoken English, in addition to the signs.”

    Also, dolphins have been known to have a variety of sounds, within their complex meanings of words. However, the language they use is possibly limited only to their interactions with fellow dolphins, instead of for the purpose of internal dialog, or personal understanding.

    These seem examples of how other animals use concepts to understand and express to others, their ideas, thoughts, and emotions.

    Franklin did ask the question of “what is human consciousness”. His first sentence here, also described the problem “of identifying exactly what you are talking about“. A highly valid and important truth and approach. I would agree with the idea that human beings have a more advanced system of reasoning, and conscious thought, than other animals. I would guess that most of us agree with that. It seems there were possibly a few different definitions of “consciousness” that weren’t completely agreed-upon. If we could adequately define them, and narrow down each variation individually to know “what applies to what”, that could possibly seem a good starting point to finding agreement, or at least to find understanding of our different viewpoints.

    I also tend to agree that studying and comparing the capabilities that other animals have with human beings, would seem a valuable approach to find out more of “what consciousness actually is”. Maybe we could arrive at some profound conclusions the more we consider various other forms of consciousness.

    Anyway, just a few thoughts!