Saturday, October 10, 2015

Synchronicity: The Meaning of Coincidence

The story I usually tell is this: one afternoon about a year ago I met up with a friend (I’ll call her Olivia), someone I hadn’t seen since college. We were giddy and caffeinated, exchanging stories about the shocking realization that we were both dating—falling in love with—people we’d first been adamantly certain were just flings. Erykah Badu played as a soundtrack: “I was not looking for no love affair.”

Life is utterly unpredictable, cheekily magical in its tricks, we agreed. Once “cracked open” (what we’d come to call this perspectival shift, the recognition that you never truly know what’s to come), rationality only goes so far. Olivia mentioned that her fling-turned-boyfriend had found lucrative gigs writing copy through mass staffing websites like Elance and thought I might be interested. So I took his email and sent him a message that night, checking his profile on Facebook, as one does, out of curiosity.

The next day I found myself in between appointments at a coffee shop near Union Square. While sitting there, I remembered Olivia’s boyfriend, and looked down to find an email reply from him, sent within the minute. Strange, but not unlike the remarkable but familiar experience of thinking about someone just before they call. After skimming the email, I noticed that the man sitting next to me was texting with a woman named Olivia (the cafĂ© had close seating and I am a nosy seat mate). When he got up to go to the bathroom, I pulled up Olivia’s boyfriend’s Facebook profile again. Indeed, this was the very man sitting next to me! (I should mention that he lives in Brooklyn, I in Harlem, and that this coffee shop is a place that neither of us had ever been to before.) When he sat back down, I tapped him on the shoulder. Incredulous, we talked about this improbable meeting, had a good laugh, and then went on about our lives.

To some, this strange meeting would be known as a “coincidence.” A crazy coincidence, perhaps. Some might even argue that it wasn’t entirely accidental: maybe I subconsciously noticed him before checking my email, which would explain why he was already in my thoughts (but then how did we both end up there?). Maybe Olivia had mentioned offhandedly that he would be in that area tomorrow, and I took in the information, again subconsciously, and organized my own schedule accordingly (never mind that my appointments had been made weeks prior).

To others—particularly those given to the spiritual-meets-pop psychology of Oprah and Deepak Chopra that has worked its way into the mainstream over the last several years—our chance meeting would be known as “synchronicity.” First coined by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung in the 1930s, and developed in his 1960 book Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, the word describes a meaningful coincidence—the phenomenon where a thought is significantly, but not causally, connected to an event. In Synchronicity, Jung defines the title word as “the simultaneous occurrence of a psychic state with one or more external events which appear as meaningful parallels to the momentary subjective state—and, in certain cases, vice versa.” (...)

Synchronicity isn’t verifiable through classical scientific methods, which can only test for phenomena that are reproducible, quantifiable, and, importantly, independent of the observer. Synchronicity, by definition, is dependent on the observer, since it’s only a subjective experience—the thought tied to the coincident event—that makes a synchronistic occurrence meaningful. (As a result, it’s not widely regarded as an actual theory.) Skeptics rationalize these happenings as mere coincidences, explainable as statistical chance or selective perception.

But Jung’s Synchronicity is meticulous in its data analysis, philosophical depth (pulling from the classical Chinese I Ching), and scientific inquiry. Jung was interested in studies of psychic processes and extrasensory perception, in astrology, and in the space-time continuum. Influenced by the “new physics” of the twentieth century—and his friendship with Albert Einstein, who was working on his theory of relativity—Jung wanted, he writes, to explore “a possible relativity of time as well as space, and their psychic conditionality.” He proposed synchronicity as a fourth principle in addition to space, time, and causality—as a phenomenon primarily concerned with “psychic conditions, that is to say with processes in the unconscious.”

Rather than describing inexplicable miracles, Jung wanted to dismantle the magic and superstition surrounding the seemingly impossible, yet seemingly connected, events he and others had experienced. He approached the topic with trepidation, wary of “plung[ing] into regions of human experience which are dark, dubious, and hedged about with prejudice,” yet passionate to share the conviction that had been building within him for decades: that while the causal principle can only account for some natural processes, a significant connection between thoughts and events need not be absent simply because cause and effect are.

“The so-called ‘scientific view of the world,’” writes Jung, “can hardly be anything more than a psychologically biased partial view which misses out all those by no means unimportant aspects that cannot be grasped statistically.” It follows, Jung argues, that the existence of one or more other factors is necessary to explain the world, with all its contingencies and its deep, if not entirely explicable, meaning.

It’s a human instinct to search for meaning in the universe—to see a pattern in all the chaos, pain, and nonsensicality. The tendency to look for interconnectedness and order also helps explain why we all feel blessed when we encounter synchronicity; its importance feels self-evident.

by Lucy McKeon, Guernica |  Read more:
Image: Zur Psychologie und Pathologie sogenannter occulter Phänomene: eine psychiatrische Studie by Carl Jung