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© 2018, The Author(s). How are the myriad stimuli arriving at our senses transformed into conscious thought? To address this question, in a series of studies, we asked whether a common mechanism underlies loss of information processing in unconscious states across different conditions, which could shed light on the brain mechanisms of conscious cognition. With a novel approach, we brought together for the first time, data from the same paradigm—a highly engaging auditory-only narrative—in three independent domains: anesthesia-induced unconsciousness, unconsciousness after brain injury, and individual differences in intellectual abilities during conscious cognition. During external stimulation in the unconscious state, the functional differentiation between the auditory and fronto-parietal systems decreased significantly relatively to the conscious state. Conversely, we found that stronger functional differentiation between these systems in response to external stimulation predicted higher intellectual abilities during conscious cognition, in particular higher verbal acuity scores in independent cognitive testing battery. These convergent findings suggest that the responsivity of sensory and higher-order brain systems to external stimulation, especially through the diversification of their functional responses is an essential feature of conscious cognition and verbal intelligence.