by , under Me, Newest thoughts

The term “Synchronicity” was developed by the psychologist Carl Jung. It refers to ‘meaningful coincidences’ — events that seem causally disconnected, but have a clear relationship in your mind. For example, have you ever been thinking or talking about someone when they magically appear or contact you? Speak of the devil. Have you ever overheard a conversation about something you were just thinking about or discussing? What a coincidence!

Many people consider synchronicity to be nonsense or mystical, perhaps because Jung used it to try and justify the existence of the paranormal. But synchronicity has a great deal in common with empirically supported ideas like quantum entanglement. I have always loved quantum mechanics, but I’m not Deepak Chopra, so I don’t want to resort to this mystical, quantum strategy for explaining what we don’t understand. Instead, I believe that psychology and neuroscience are more than capable of describing this powerful phenomenon. So let’s explore.

The human brain is a pattern completion machine. Our job as conscious human beings is to see “1+1” and respond: “2”. Another example of this is cloud watching. Most people find it extremely easy to see meaningful patterns or shapes in clouds. Sometimes, we can’t avoid seeing people, places, or things in a ‘random’ arrangement of water vapor.

What do you see in this image? Other than a cloud that is…

This concept has been used to produce “Rorschach inkblots,” which is a psychological test that asks you to ascribe meaning to ‘meaningless’ symmetrical splatters of ink. The patterns and meaning that you derive from these inkblots can be very informative about your state of mind.

What do you see in this image? What does that tell you about your feelings?

When we want to, we are very good at seeing patterns in clouds and inkblots. But this perception of meaningful patterns from ‘randomness’ is much more automatic and difficult to inhibit than we realize. This becomes very obvious with visual illusions such as the one shown below.

Can you stop yourself from seeing the white square in the middle of this image?

There is no difference in shade between the color of white in the center and the color of white on the edges of this image. Nearly every human that looks at this image will see 4 ‘almost circles’ and assume that they must be complete circles, but covered by another object. Since all 4 are oriented at right angles to each other, your brain interprets the whiteness in the center of the image as a solid, single square that visually obscures a quarter of each black circle.

These types of visual illusions make it very clear that an external stimulus will result in the same response from two things that have similar internal structures (or even just one similarity within their internal structure). For example, we can all recognize the smile of a passerby and interpret a wide range of emotions from this simple facial gesture. We’ve known since Charles Darwin that facial expressions are the same across all humans. More recent work has shown that facial expressions are universally recognizable emblems of specific emotions — no matter who we are or where we come from, a frown means we’re upset.

Why is it so hard to imagine an invisible connection between unrelated things? For example, why do we think that it is supernatural for people to be “telepathically” linked? Isn’t it telepathic when we see a frown and think, “that guy is upset”? My opinion is that this difficulty of imagination arises from our description of ‘ESP’ (extra-sensory perception) or ‘telepathy.’ We often consider ‘mind-reading’ to occur through the direct transfer of a mental signal; i.e. I literally ‘send’ my internal thoughts to your brain. Ironically, this is exactly how language works. Nothing paranormal there.

We often get confused at the difference between sending and receiving signals and receiving and reacting to the same signal in the same way. Mass media provides us with a powerful explanation of how this kind of synchronicity can occur. When you see two strangers that both have umbrellas you don’t automatically assume they telepathically arranged to carry an umbrella that day. It is much more likely that they both read the same weather report. They didn’t send signals back and forth to coordinate the proper attire for the weather — they both received the same signal in the same way.

Of course, everyone is unique. A sudden rainstorm may cause one person to run for cover, while another may start to play in the puddles. But despite our uniqueness, we are all human, and we all largely share the same bodily plans, brain structures, and behaviors. As Shakespeare wrote: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

We can see that humans (and basically any other things that share features) react to things in similar ways. So let’s combine this with the fact that there are events that affect many people simultaneously, like weather, electromagnetic fields (from the sun for just one example), and seismic events. When someone dies, it is very likely that there are two or more people that feel sad for the same reason, even if they have never met each other. There are seemingly endless examples which show that humans respond to the same stimuli in the same way. Are these meaningful coincidences truly unrelated?

The coordination and resonance between seemingly unrelated humans is a very useful trait. Our inherent design as pattern completers makes us extraordinarily good problem solvers. We can see the true power of this evolutionary advantage by the extent to which our species has colonized the planet: there are 7.5 billion of us. Because of the massive number of living people, synchronicity is often explained away with the “Law of Truly Large Numbers.” But I find this explanation to be just as unnecessary as resorting to quantum mechanics. Are you surprised when you and a good friend react to the same joke, artwork, or event in the same way? Probably not, because you’ve both shared many experiences and are therefore predisposed to react to a stimulus in the same way.

I believe that the skepticism behind synchronicity occurs because of the way our human minds react to “true” randomness. Spotify (an internet radio program) originally used a ‘truly random’ algorithm to determine which song played next. But the developers had to make this feature less random, because its users complained that the ‘true randomness’ wasn’t random enough! The same thing happened when Apple released its iTunes shuffle feature. We see patterns everywhere, and two complete strangers are likely to see the same non-existent patterns. Is it paranormal when two people see the same visual illusion? Is it magical when two people see a pattern where there is none?

What’s interesting is that seeing a non-existent pattern creates the pattern. If you associate two disconnected things in your mind, you have created a connection between them! As I repeatedly say, this is an example of the paradox which operates at the heart of eightstep me — the creation of a connection that arises from disconnection; human uniqueness as the key feature that makes us the same. Synchronicity is real, and we should appreciate the power of the unspoken, unseen connections that it brings to our lives. If you start looking for synchronicity you will no longer be surprised by “spooky” or “crazy” coincidences. To the contrary, you can actually start using it to communicate more effectively with yourself, the people you know, and things that we don’t often think about talking with — like animals, plants, weather, and even the universe as a whole.

  1. Matt Manes

    I was having a discussion just last week about the use of synchronicity as a way of bootstrapping fermi estimations when you can’t measure / don’t have the data / are unable to establish causal or even any relationship between concepts yet still need a way of getting a quantitative measurement. The example I’m currently in is estimating the number of single-unit curbside mailboxes sold annually in the US and segmentation the mailbox market. It’s not a studied topic, almost no one has data, and what data is available is scattered, disjoint, and out of date. But we still need a measure because we’re working on introducing a new product line and need to make financial decisions. Synchronicity in this case lets me use several proxies for which I do have data and can be reasonably certain move together with the numbers I care about, like owner-occupied housing rates and residential USPS delivery points, even if there’s no causal relationship and pulls in things I don’t care about, to bound the range of the number I do. Is it a valid methodology for “proving” anything? No. Should it be the first or even second choice? Definitely not. But sometimes reproducibility or validation doesn’t matter when you just need a number that’s reasonably close.

    • Me

      Woh! Great example!!

      It seems to me like very intelligent people are scared by this kind of methodology, because they see parallels with the way that religious reasoning operates. ‘I saw two two things happen around the same time, so there’s something connecting them’ is literally the definition of superstition. a.k.a. kid gets vaccine, kid gets autism, so vaccines must cause autism.

      As you so rightly point out in the outline you sent me, it is all about keeping track of how you acquire your knowledge. Everything is connected, but it is our job to be aware of the valence and direction of the apparent causation; even if it is illusory.


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