I had the pleasure the other day of being a co-interviewer of Dr. Kirby Surprise, author of Synchronicity: The Art of Coincidence, Choice, and Unlocking Your Mind. Alex Tsakiris, the host of Skeptiko, had asked me to join him for the interview.
Dr. Surprise explains synchronicity as a case of us seeing what we expect. This is a combination of seeing patterns in our environment based on our expectations, and of our minds actually influencing our environment via our expectations. Based on the work of parapsychologist J. B. Rhine, he characterizes this direct mental influence as being about 5% of the picture. According to this, our minds do not create our reality, as New Agers say, but they do influence it.
As a result, whatever you think synchronicity is, that’s what you will see out there. In one of his interviews available on YouTube, he talks about how a mental patient of his experienced synchronicity as a case of God talking to him. But when Dr. Surprise suggested he imagine that instead he was talking to a cartoon character—I think it was Bugs Bunny—the man came back and reported that things had completely changed. Now it did feel like Bugs Bunny was talking to him through his synchronicities.
Actually, I think Dr. Surprise has a point. I think most of what we call synchronicity is a case of us seeing patterns in our environment based more on associations and expectations in our own minds than on actual connections in the environment. That, in fact, is why I’ve distanced myself from most synchronicity. I don’t want to be caught ascribing significance to what may merely be random, meaningless patterns in my environment. I would feel that I had fallen into fantasy. I remember reading that Carl Jung, who coined the term synchronicity, saw six fish in two days (only one was an actual fish), which made a “considerable impression” on him. The series, he said, possessed a “numinous quality.” But I expect we all see that many, or probably more, fish in a given two-day period. What’s so numinous about that?
However, even though I expect that most synchronicities are a case of us seeing the projections of our own pattern-seeking, that has certainly not been my experience of CMPEs. In every way, they have functioned like a real phenomenon, independent of my mind, one that is what it is and merely awaits my discovery.
All of the characteristics of CMPEs as I describe them now were slowly uncovered by me over many years, as I revised earlier assumptions in light of experience. I’ll give you some examples.
For a long time, I would take seriously coincidences that were basically one evocative event set against the backdrop of a long-term situation. I slowly realized, though, that the really good coincidences I experienced always had at least two distinct events that happened close together in time.
For years and years, I considered that the events needed to be within “about a day” of each other. As a result, I had many purported CMPEs in which one event happened on one day and the other event happened the next day. I even had ones in which the events were five days apart. Then I started tracking the actual time in between the events of good-quality CMPEs. I found a distribution in which more than half of them had events within 30 minutes of each other. And another third of them had events between 30 minutes apart and 5 hours apart. That meant that by the 5-hour mark, we had accounted for 90% of CMPEs, with most of those being bunched up close to simultaneity. Further, I wasn’t able to find any solid CMPEs that had events that were more than 11 1/2 hours apart. Suddenly, it made no sense to allow the clock to be stretched out to “about a day.”
If you read my accounts now, you see that I always feature a carefully-written list of the parallels between the two events. But that practice evolved very slowly. Looking in my records, I see that fifteen years ago I was only rarely doing that—which is a bit shocking for me to see.
All of these developments resulted in me slowly tightening the model, in response to what I observed in the phenomenon itself. The result of that was a gradual but dramatic decrease in the number of recorded CMPEs. For instance, in my 1996 log, I recorded 78 supposed CMPEs in 7 and a half months. That’s a rate of 125 per year. However, for several years now, my log (which consists of both my and my wife’s CMPEs) has contained between 40 and 50 CMPEs. That means that about two thirds of my earlier ones would now almost certainly not qualify as CMPEs.
Yet now that I have boiled down this specific model over many years, I can now look back and see it in my best examples from the past, before I had a clue it existed. It fits my experience from age sixteen that got me into this whole coincidence thing. It fits my experience at age twenty-one that got me into A Course in Miracles. I can also see it in other people’s experiences, even strangers who knew nothing about my model when they had their experiences (see here, for example). I have an example from the late 90s, another from 1995, and one from way back in 1965 (when I was five years old), from long before I published anything and from people I didn’t know at the time.
And now I have seen it in the lives of the 17 participants in our pilot study. True, they were taught to look for this pattern, in classes we held before the study began. However, their CMPEs reflected the pattern down to minute levels. This included not only major features like number of events, proximity of events, and number of parallels, but extended down into minor features, like kinds of events, kinds of subject markers, and kinds of subject situations.
Just as the model itself grew slowly out of observation, so the same thing happened with my speculation that this comes from God. Unlike Dr. Surprise’s patient, who had been experiencing his synchronicities as communications from God since he was a young man, I only very slowly associated mine with God. My memory of exact dates is hazy, simply because I didn’t give a lot of thought to where this phenomenon was coming from. So for about 15 years I was virtually agnostic about, and uninterested in, the question of its source. Then I remember for much of the 90s thinking that this came from our unconscious knowledge of God’s plan for our lives. That slowly slid into dropping the unconscious and thinking just in terms of God’s plan. And that slowly transformed—largely under the influence of the CMPEs themselves—into thinking that it came from God. But that’s really been only for about the last decade. That’s the last 10 years of a 35-year history.
Finally, of course, there is the fact that the messages themselves are often a complete surprise. I remember having a CMPE 20 years ago that shocked me with the message that my wife at the time was pregnant. She assured me she couldn’t be, but I remember having a little private panic each day for several weeks (about the possibility that the CMPE was right, not wrong), until she discovered that she in fact was expecting. I have less dramatic examples of this all the time, where a CMPE will come in and cut right against my preconceptions and resistance. As I often say, they really do seem to have a mind of their own.
This is a small snapshot of why I experience myself working with a genuine pattern that exists in my environment, apart from and prior to my expectation that it is there. I do acknowledge that most synchronicities can probably be easily chalked up to our expectations. I also acknowledge that CMPEs represent a tiny slice of the overall synchronicity pie. But in my opinion, that’s the most interesting slice.