I went through another round of the conscious-unconscious — don’t-know-what-it is really — debate.
The main thrust was how we (mammals) have used unconscious bodily activity for millions of years to guide and enable us to survive, and we (hominoids) have used consciousness for only 200,000 to maybe 6 million years. (Here I will take consciousness to mean awareness and language that leads to thinking and rationality).
Unconsciousness, in this sense, is our stimulus response system that accounts for awareness and reaction. Think of the instantaneous reaction to touching heat. Think of a deer lifting its ear to hear the sounds, possibly of a predator. Think of anger in response to something. On a very deep level our unconscious selves are attuned to the environment around us. And we respond instantly.
Consciousness, or thinking, or internal dialogue, is both slower and much later in our development (as a biological species). It should be considered an add-on or plug-in to our anatomical and biological brain system.
I have an internal dialogue that runs constantly in my head. I have read others who indicated they too have such an internal dialogue (that voice inside us). If you are reading this and do not have a voice in your head, would you let me know.
Here is the aside question: is that voice, that internal stream of information, in pictures or words? I have read of folks who think in pictures, rather than language. I use language and I would argue that hugely more energy efficient to think in sounds rather than images. See Sounds to Civilization.
This internal stream of information, the internal dialogue, is what provides consciousness, thinking, and rationality. It is true that consciousness absolutely recognizes self and the awareness of self. Consciousness better understands the environment around us, but I reiterate that the unconscious also has an awareness of the environment, and intuitive and very responsive awareness.
Now I think that this internal dialogue came about only in the last ten million years and that the characteristic that most separates us from other mammal species is our use of sound to construct language and develop entire worlds of non-physical reality. Language empowers imagination and meaning to ideas and concepts that are not present in our physical world (anger leading to hate, leading to discrimination or separation; or mathematics and concepts that are strictly in the mental realm; or religion and belief in things not seen)
But there is more: the use of sounds led to multiple sounds (proto-sentences) and to labels for such things as time and space, and everything else. It led to sounds for actions (eat) and the construction of multiple sound structures that eventually led to language and the continual stream of thoughts and ideas.
And (this is conjecture), once this stream of words/pictures got going, it never stopped. The internal dialogue of the brain is a learned habit, and it is self-perpetuating such that it runs continually. Sure, we shut it down periodically. Sleep and time off for rejuvenation — although dreams certainly show that we do not fully shut off our brain; or mediation or other practices that work to shut off the internal dialogue and just “be”.
But our thinking self always comes back. But our thinking self can only think about what we have learned. Our brains grow and develop from an embryo to an elderly, they adapt, take in knowledge and experience. What we have learned (stored as part of neural networks are memories or processes) becomes the foundation of and resource for what we think about.
So, unconsciousness, awareness and stimulus-response is much deeper in our brains (and in our development and in learning), and consciousness or thinking is much later in our heritage and is add-on or learned skill within our species that came from enhanced use of sound and its development into language. Unconsciousness is the gut feel and happens first (and fast) in our brains. But our conscious and thinking brain (with this add on running fulltime), comes in later (kicked off as part of the stimulus response system), and has the chance to override our unconscious or biological response. Sometimes it should and sometimes we need to go with gut feel.
Thinking and consciousness is an add-on to our long development anatomical features. But thinking and consciousness (and use of sound to label and discuss things not physical) are the learned skills that have allowed collaboration and intelligence to develop and allowed our species to dominate the world.
Of course, if human caused climate change does us in, thinking and language may not have been such a good idea.