Origins of Consciousness (internal dialogue)

Van Talmage
8 min readAug 17, 2023

In my last post (link), I suggested that internal dialogue, which is the verbalization of thinking, was an add-on to the already functioning mammalian brain. Our hominoid ancestors had an unconscious awareness (stimulus-response system) that was needed for survival. This was the starting point, or base, to which internal dialogue was added.

The mammalian awareness system (stimulus-response) consisted of the five senses tied to brain functions such that the biological entity had learned to balance its existence with its environment. The mammal (or any other living thing) had evolved to handle the sensual inputs from its surrounding environment. The “balance” allowed the entity to persist through time. The definition of life includes the ability to persist through time. Life is about balancing your metabolic needs (nutrition, energy, oxygen) with the surrounding environment

The internal dialogue (and with it, rationale, thinking, reasoning, logic, etc.) came about in hominoids quite recently (2–10 million years?) and was a learned skill. As with everything, it evolved slowly, and spread slowly, but at some point, reached a critical mass and took off.

· The “learned skill” that hominoids developed and practiced to good use was sound production and reception. Sound is the most energy efficient means of communication, particularly in a close setting and hominoids took advantage of this to take over the world. (Link to Sounds and Civilization)

Our hominoid ancestors came together to form groups or clans because sheltering and working together was a benefit that afforded advantages in the survival game. In the close quarters of caves or other shelters, hominoids greatly enhanced their sound production and reception skills. This likely took place over millennia.

So, what was the skill that they were learning? And how did it get in our brains?

On sound production, this was easy, as humans simply learned different mouth and tongue positions to create different sounds. Anatomically, because we were more erect, our elongated throats had room for more expansive vocal chords. We learned to produce more sounds.

There was also the reception of sound, perhaps more significant. We learned to attach meaning to sounds. Modulated sound waves can carry large amounts of information at very little energy cost. Because we could take sounds and convert them into larger meaning, we learned to communicate with each other, we learned to work together, and we progressed to be able to build projects larger than one mind could do.

Back to how this happened, and what is going on in our brains.

There is a neural network contained within the brain tissue in our skulls. This network is billions of neurons large and because each neuron has multiple inputs and outputs, the number of pathways throughout this network is nearly infinite.

A neural pathway is a contiguous set of neurons through which a current might flow. Current flows from neuron to neuron because of a chemical reaction at the synapses, which are the junction points between neurons.

Such flow causes activation of multiple pathways, and, therefore, multiple parts of the brain are concurrently energized. It is this pattern of activations that leads to the unconscious (stimulus-response) and to thinking (internal dialogue) and consciousness.

How do we get from this current (chemical reaction) — and these neural pathways, these patterns of activation — to (first) the unconscious state of stimulus response that keeps entities alive, and then to consciousness or thinking that leads to language, collaboration, imagination, non-physical items, and rules of logic? Where does internal dialogue come from?

But first, consider: learning. What is learning and how does it work? There is evidence that learning, in a biological sense, is adding neurons or enhancing neurons, or strengthening neural pathways. That is, as the brain takes in information and stores it (memory) or the brains learns a new procedure — routine, habit, algorithm — and stores the formula, the brain will generate new neurons or by various means enhance or alter neural pathways to store the information.

It must be the case that — through some means — neurons are involved in storing memories and in storing procedures. Somehow the configuration and characteristics of the neuron and neuron pathways hold the key to understanding the mechanism of both the conscious and the unconscious.

So, we have billions of neurons and there is constant current or stimulus flowing through these pathways. There are trillions of “states” or patterns that can exist within this brain structure. At any instant of time there is a “state” of the brain, and this is indicated by the pattern of activation at the point. Each pattern helps determine the next state. The series of states, one instance after another, is the continual stream of being that is life.

And this is just physics, chemistry, and biology.

This condition of brain patterns or activity has existed from the earliest days of eukaryotes and perhaps before. The earliest collection of nerves and control mechanisms had some activity that controlled functions in the biological entity. By the time mammals arrived, the brains had become quite adept at unconscious skills like responding to sounds or patterns that led to food.

That is, by the billions of years had passed, the primates (our common ancestors) had highly efficient brains capable of running a physical body and having awareness of surroundings as reflected by their stimulus response systems. They had five senses and they responded to environmental signals in order to survive.

It is in this environment that we want to add the new skill of communication through the use of sound and language, and from that, we moved on to develop ideas and non-physical realities and imaginations.

Our major point so far:

· Brains are in a constant flux (state change) because of the physical/chemical reactions at the junctions of neurons which causes constant activation of neural pathways

· Neurons have multiple inputs and outputs so that the number of neural pathways is nearly infinite.

· Learning is the use of neural connections and pathways to store information (how?)

· The neural networks of brains had evolved sufficiently such that primates approximately 10–20 million years ago had a stimulus-response system that allowed them to survive.

Note that there were two vital factors in our evolution from primate to hominoid (before sound communication): bipedalism and controlled fire.

By standing upright, hominoids freed the hands for new uses. This helped stimulate brain activity leading to new tools and skills. We also elongated our necks which gave room for better vocal cords.

By controlling fire, our ancestors increased survivability because of cooked meats (better preservation and hence more protein). Because controlling fires led to sheltering together, we formed groups (on our best survival techniques). And we started chattering more in close quarters.

It is this last point, sheltering together, that allowed the use of sound to be a communications vehicle and helped hominoids build entirely new worlds.

Let me hypothesize on the transition from a primate with a fully developed stimulus response system and minimal use of sound as warnings and sounds of affection. We moved towards and ended with a situation wherein we have both a stimulus response system and an internal, never-ending dialogue with ourselves. Our current curiosity is to understand both how that internal dialogue came about and how it actually works within our brains.

It is important to note that we eventually developed the means to export that internal dialogue (that voice in our head) to both writing and speaking aloud. We have learned to document and store our thoughts. We have learned how to share them and use them to collaborate with others who understand our language. Now we have the internet.

Consider the well-formed mammalian primate about 10 million years ago. Attuned, listening, sensing, and perhaps some conception of space, time and objects. Sounds but no real language. (An open question is whether the stimulus-response system with language has a “conception” of space and time. The answer most certainly has to be yes, but these “concepts” were unnamed and part of the background or intuitive nervous system. They had to be part of the framework that is the balancing act of staying alive in our environment.

What is the default if all is quiet and peaceful on the environmental front? Nothing is happening, save gentle gusts of wind. The awareness alerts are on but nothing is happening. What is this mammal doing with the unused brain cycles and brain activity?

(It must be noted that while I have brought up stimulus response and internal dialogue as brain functions, there is a lower level of activity that monitors and controls the body (heartbeat, breathing) that operates without any conscious activity and without outside stimulus).

Our approximation is that there is must be some rest state with interrupts triggered.

Now consider the process with sound:

Sound production travels nearly effortless for short distances with little energy required to produce that sound. Sound waves are easily modulated (pitch, amplitude, frequency of change) this allows information to be transmitted by modulated soundwaves. Low energy, different meanings.

But sound has to be received to be useful. So the companion to better sound production is better sound reception. This was the skill that our ancestors brought to the table.

When we hear, sound is converted into meaning. This happened in animal world long before hominoids. Sounds were warnings and perhaps, sounds of affection. Sounds were triggers in the brain. But the real strength of sound, beyond its energy efficiency, is the huge variety of sounds that are possible and that these can be carried to nearby receptacles through sound modulations.

Hominoids carried sound modulation into language and the exploration of non-physical ideas and concepts.

Of critical importance is the brains ability to “store” and “retrieve” something. The “something” or the “object” stored and retrieved could be a sound, it could be an odor, or a taste, or sensation, or an image. It could be a series of steps or an action.

So we come into the stages of primates, fully equipped and ready to make more sounds.

The first use of sound had to be labelling (name for objects). A warning cry conveys some “thought” of an object that causes trouble. That object eventually had a name/label/noun which came from that warning cry referring to a physical entity.

So early hominoids — communicators — must have developed sounds as labels or names for objects.

Next came actions. Just like objects could be named, so could actions (Eat, move, sleep, hold…). Actions get names (verbs).

Then perhaps combination of sounds (proto-sentences).

And, of high importance, the awareness of self as an object in space.

This to me is the point here: proto sentences, combinations of sound carrying meaning, lead to the habit of communicating more. It was this practice of uttering and receiving sounds that became a learned skill by early hominoids. A section of the brain learned do carry on this dialogue with the self.

So we have an expanding repertoire of sounds, we have a skill of associating sounds with memories or objects, we have a storage retrieval system and we have brain that has unused cycles.

This is how I think the internal dialogue arose as a brain activity. It was a skill or habit learned through repetition. Sounds together equal sentences. Sentences together equal internal dialogue. Continuous dialogue is thinking. Thinking, of course, is also the retrieval stored information (data and procedures).

Once we started naming objects and dialoguing, we, hominoids, took off. We evolved language and we started naming non-physical objects (love, hate, space, time, spirits, forces, laws of physics). We took this talent of language and communication to new heights of collaboration and building. And it all lead to today.

My Conclusions:

Enhanced Sound capabilities led to internal dialogue and language because of the low energy requirement to transmit information and this led to our species taking over the world.

If we blow it because it also led to climate change and gene-editing, well then the enhancement of sound didn’t work out so well.

However, there is still hope that our intellect (based on reasoning because of language) will solve the current problems our species has brought upon itself.

(Note, not being a scholar, I do not properly keep track of sources. For the record, I have been greatly influenced by E.O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Robert Wright and others).