Is there meaning in coincidence, or are we trying to impart meaning to make sense of our lives?
For materialistic scientists, coincidences are a matter of statistics, they happen to almost everyone at some point. However, people desperate to find meaning or order in their lives, are eager to interpret those coincidences in a way to impart meaning on them.
For Carl Gustave Jung, one of the icons of modern psychology, coincidences are related to an intangible process which cannot be explained by causes and effects, but instead by meaningful invisible connections or “synchronicity”, as he coined it in the 1950s.
Jung updated his definition of the term “synchronicity” from time to time. He also called it the principle of correspondence, which means everything is connected in a meaningful sense, in his book Aion, Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self.
"When coincidences pile up in this way, one cannot help being impressed by them – for the greater the number of terms in such a series, or the more unusual its character, the more improbable it becomes," Jung said.
He believed that due to the incomplete human understanding of nature, humankind “excludes observable facts from our understanding or else formulates them in an unjustifiably negative way...” to dismiss the possibility of coincidences as meaningful connections.
But others, like Gibb A. Williams, a psychoanalyst and the author of Demystifying Meaningful Coincidences, disagree with Jung and his passionate followers.
"You're looking for patterns. It's like you're on your own psychological scavenger hunt. You look for pieces to fit the puzzle. The completed pattern is experienced as a synchronicity," Williams said.
An interesting ‘coincidence’
One of the most famous cases of whether a coincidence hides a meaningful fact, or not, happened to Jung during a therapy session with a young female patient. She was a fierce rationalist.
Jung explained the famous incident in his book, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle.
“A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window pane from outside,” the psychologist recounted.
“I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment,” he continued.
Jung believed the coincidence of the insect’s visit to his office during a therapy session with the young woman was in fact not one at all. While the two incidents were apparently separate, they were intriguingly tied to each other by the way of synchronicity, according to Jung.
After the incident, the woman’s strict stance of rationality collapsed, according to Jung, allowing the psychological process of transformation to begin for her.
“What I found were ‘coincidences’ which were connected so meaningfully that their ‘chance’ concurrence would be incredible,” Jung observed.
Jung was good friends with Albert Einstein, a towering physicist of the modern era. Both men inspired each other to develop their respective theories - quantum physics for Einstein and synchronicity for Jung.
Consciousness and coincidences
Some psychologists also believe that seeing everything as a matter of chance might not be a good motivator for the development of the human mind.
A 2015 study showed that the human mind’s struggle to make sense of things helps improve mental health. Coincidences help humans establish similarities and distinguish differences, according to the study.
“Once we spot a regularity, we learn something about what events go together and how likely they are to occur. And these are valuable sources of information to begin to navigate the world,” said Magda Osman, an experimental psychologist at the University of London, who co-wrote the study.
Experts also think that “coincidences” most often happen to people who are mindful and notice things around themselves, which is a positive thing. But at the same time, this mindfulness might justify the sceptics, who think that seeking meaning in every coincidence is the ultimate reason behind people finding a meaning in random incidents.
“People who describe themselves as religious or spiritual, those who are more connected with the world around them and those who are seeking meaning — or in distress and searching for signs — are more likely to experience coincidences,” said Bernard Beitman, a visiting psychiatry and neuro-behavioural sciences professor at the University of Virginia, and a coincidence researcher.
But Beitman, who went through some real personal experiences, almost confirming Jung’s synchronicity theory, also thinks that coincidences might have particular structures, which could be perceived not just by religious people, but all others, too.
“Just as sharks have ampullae in their skin that detect small electromagnetic changes to help them locate their prey … it’s plausible, maybe even probable, that humans have similar mechanisms that detect coincidences,” the professor said.