Consciousness is present when people become aware of concepts, actions and behaviors. Almost everything humans think, do, say, or feel is automatic. That is a funny word, in that it can imply something mechanical like a robot. This is definitely not the case. All animals, and plants, and even microbial life, act automatically, unconsciously.
Having to stop and think about “how to digest” the potato chip a person just ate, or scratching a knee, or breathing or even withdrawing a hand from a hot burner, would be disastrous. There is simply not enough time to be fully aware of these things. Animals have to respond unconsciously, or they could not survive.
There are many states of consciousness, a continuum and not a dualistic “off” or “on.” Descartes’ famous quote, “I think therefore I am,” suggests that we are only thinking when aware of thinking. Or it implies that only organisms with full awareness of cogitation are conscious. This is not the case either. In fact, in most theories of consciousness, there is no duality, but a blend of awareness, thoughts, attentiveness or lack of it, sensory data and so forth. In science, simplistic black and white solutions do not work. Biologists know that the brain and consciousness are related, but still mysterious, and forever to be studied.
The human animal, as well as other organisms, dwell in an ocean of unconsciousness. When aware, attentive, or alert, sometimes the organism can be said to be surfing the surface waves of that ocean.
Ancient scientists, or naturalists (now called Philosophers) had views on consciousness as well. Plato posited that ideal forms, or the conscious conception of say, “ a chair,” is just as real as a physical chair made of atoms and energy. This view of consciousness, that humans alone can conceptualize ideas, lasted for more than two thousand years in western thought. It was not until Darwin showed that humans are animals in the physical world; and connected to the physical world, that the concept of “ideas and ideal forms” lost some of its extreme prejudice toward knowing consciousness. Freud did most of his work on mapping out the unconscious. He saw our belonging to nature as a threat, and not a liberation. Jung came along later, and mapped a collective consciousness.
People have many states of consciousness, which is why it is curious that humans think of a “state” of consciousness as though only the attentive one matters. Even the title in Helium rather implies that there is a specific “state” of consciousness, or that there is only one that really matters. It is almost akin to the concept of monotheism, one truth, or god.
People have dreams, medications, stress, physical ailments, and an infinite number of various combinations of all these things and more. Being attune to sensory data all about us is to be highly conscious, yet it rarely includes thinking about thinking. Being in a blind rage, for example, when one learns his car is stolen, is a very different state of awareness from the one the car theft victim may have been in just moments before, for example.
Fight of flight, even when we are marginally aware of it is another state of consciousness that protects most organisms from harm in automatic response to a threat. In human beings this threat most often comes conceptually. People can reason that if they just broke the copy maker at work they might be in danger of losing a job. Breaking the copier is the stimulus from which he or she panics in response too feeling a conceptual threat rather than a physical one (such as an axe murderer in the copy room). If he or she broke the copier by dropping a bottle of whiskey on it, the flight of fight response is magnified, and even more complex.
Consciousness is not a steady state, or even a solid idea. It is fluid and dynamic. It is present in many life forms, by several definitions. There is overlap between what biologists, other scientists, lay people, and the religious mean by consciousness. Some think that human consciousness is proof of a soul. Others believe that being self aware is itself consciousness. And still others believe that it is not just in the mind, or even just in the human body, but a shared spirit, breath, wind or moving air that all life shares. Most indigenous cultures, before the duality models of Plato and Descartes, shared the belief that God is consciousness. That God, in the form of breath moving upon the waters, breathed life into existence on this and other planets, giving rise to consciousness and spirit.
A simplified version of this is the great quote by Edward R. Harrison: “Hydrogen is an odorless colorless gas which, given enough time, turns into people." This is a magnificent summary of the history of life, which could be taken just one step further to say, "Hydrogen is an odorless colorless gas which, given enough time, turns into people who contemplate their awareness.” Consciousness includes chemistry, geology, biology, of life on earth and elsewhere, and our awareness of our connection to creation.