The Mystery of Consciousness — are we just talking to ourselves?

David Haller from Legion is an expert at talking to himself. @courtesy Noah Hawley and FX.
Consciousness is one of the big mysteries of our lifetimes, as we know so few hard facts about what it is and how it works. And yet, it is such a fundamental part of being human. Often described as a “state of sentience” or “awareness of our existence”, consciousness is the inner us — our private thoughts, heard only by us, in our own minds. Consciousness is insanely difficult for linguists and scientists to figure out, because it’s simply hard to measure things that go on only in our own heads — there’s no way to listen in. But could it be that consciousness is literally just us talking to ourselves? If so, the human species’ unique (we think) gift of speech is closely intertwined with the idea of consciousness; in fact, they even they might literally be the same thing.
It makes a surprising amount of sense that consciousness is just our silent inner monologue. When I talk in my head, I know I do it as if I were in a conversation with myself. Most days, a few of my favorite topics are asking myself questions (“What the hell was that?”), evaluating internal feelings (“Man this movie sucks”), debating decisions (“If I go to the gym I’ll feel good, but if I don’t go to the gym I can watch the new Primitive video”), and maybe even spending a few moments convincing myself that I made a good decision (“Don’t worry about not going to the gym today, you went last month, you’re doing great I promise”). For me at least, the things I think of as parts of my consciousness feel entirely linguistic, just in an internal way.
David Haller from Legion is an expert at talking to himself. @courtesy Noah Hawley and FX.
I would like to clarify that when I talk about consciousness, I do not include our reactive decision making, nor our body’s internal sensory feedback system. Though, these two things are very important for deciding what our consciousness talks about. Our reactive decision making is the reactions hard-wired into us through a combination of genetics and pavlovian training via experience, such as quick-stepping out of the way of a passing bicycle or catching a set of keys that’s tossed to you. They are completely second nature, and do not require, nor have time for, you to think through what you are doing. When we react, it often feels like our lizard brain thinking. When we decide via our consciousness, we use language to talk to ourselves and decide what it is that we want to do.
Consciousness is also different from our bodies’ internal sensory system, though the information from our internal senses is often the topic of conversation for our inner monologues. Our internal sensory system gives us information about how we feel physically, like “hungry”, “knee hurts”, or “got to pee”. And these are very important to overall state in any given moment, which is why our consciousness is so often discussing what our internal sensory system is telling us. Not to mention that these internal senses are present to all life in some form or another, but it is only humans who (we think) possess consciousness.
I will caveat once again that the subject of consciousness is very hotly debated by scientists, philosophers, religious experts, and yes even language nut skateboarders like me. So if you disagree, let me know what you think in the comments and we’ll discuss.
- Jack Connor