Nurturing Potential's main theme article

Synchronicity, Intuition and Coincidence




 Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience, defines synchronicity as:

"The unifying principle behind meaningful coincidences. Psychiatrist Carl G. Jung termed Synchronicity ‘an acausal connecting principle’ that links seemingly unrelated and unconnected events. The concept is integral to Eastern thought, but in Western thought runs contrary to cause and effect. In the West, ‘coincidences’ are popularly discounted as ‘chance happenings.’ The concept of synchronicity was developed largely by Carl G. Jung, who credited Albert Einstein as his inspiration."  



Jung's view of synchronicity

A famous example


Intuition, decision-making and pseudoscience


That famous presidential coincidence



What is Jung’s view of synchronicity?

Jung’s own explanation of the concept of synchronicity is as follows:

" As its etymology shows, this term has something to do with time, or to be more accurate, with a kind of simultaneity.  Instead of simultaneity we could use the concept of a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved."[1]  

What did Jung state about the chance occurrence of coincidences?

Jung had become absorbed by synchronicity when he was investigating the phenomena of the collective unconscious and kept on coming across connections which he simply could not explain: "as chance groupings or ‘runs.’ What I found were ‘coincidences’ which were connected so meaningfully that their ‘chance’ concurrence would represent a degree of improbability that would have to be expressed by an astronomical figure.[2]

Jung was a contemporary of Albert Einstein who, apparently, was instrumental in helping Jung to develop his ideas on synchronicity.  It seems that Jung had a series of dinners with Einstein in Zurich between 1909 and 1913 during which the concept of synchronicity was discussed.  These discussions greatly influenced Jung's subsequent thinking and appeared to provide a key to the numerous stories of baffling coincidences being revealed to him by his clients, by his own studies and - even more puzzling - by episodes in his own life.

The principle of synchronicity is based on the concept that everything in the universe has some kind of correspondence one to the other. There is a "classical idea of the sympathy of all things."   There is a link, there is a bond, so to speak, and even so-called inanimate objects have a form of communication. In other words the whole universe is a living breathing entity and its various life forms, in all the kingdoms (animal, plant, mineral, human, etc.) are not as removed from each other as previously thought.  In support of Hippocrates [3] Carl Jung said: "The universal principle is found even in the smallest particle, which therefore corresponds to the whole." [4]  


A Famous Example

We are indebted to that wonderful free Internet resource, Wikipedia for the following story.  A well-known example of synchronicity involves plum pudding.  It is the true story of the French writer Emile Deschamps who in 1805 is treated to some plum pudding by the stranger Monsieur de Fontgibu. Ten years later, he encounters plum pudding on the menu of a Paris restaurant, and wants to order some, but the waiter tells him the last dish has already been served to another customer, who turns out to be M. de Fontgibu. Many years later in 1832 Emile Deschamps is at a diner, and is once again offered plum pudding. He recalls the earlier incident and tells his friends that only M. de Fontgibu is missing to make the setting complete, and in the same instant the now senile M. de Fontgibu enters the room by mistake.



Apophenia, a term coined by Klaus Conrad in 1958,  is defined as the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. It is often used as an explanation of paranormal and religious claims although as described by Conrad it was related to the distortion of reality present in psychosis.

 It was given prominence by Peter Brugger, a neuropsychologist at University Hospital, Zurich, Switzerland.  According to Brugger, "The propensity to see connections between seemingly unrelated objects or ideas most closely links psychosis to creativity . . .  apophenia and creativity may even be seen as two sides of the same coin." 

Some of the most creative people in the world, then, must be psychoanalysts and therapists who use projective tests like the Rorschach Test or who see patterns of child abuse behind every emotional problem. Brugger notes that one analyst thought he had support for the penis envy theory because more females than males failed to return their pencils after a test. Another spent nine pages in a prestigious journal describing how sidewalk cracks are vaginas and feet are penises, and the old saw about not stepping on cracks is actually a warning to stay away from the female sex organ.

Synchronicity, intuition or coincidence?  Or simply pseudo-science?  Or even psychobabble. 


Intuition, decision-making and pseudo-science

In a television interview in 1978, Noam Chomsky said "As soon as questions of will or decision or reason or choice of action arise, human science is at a loss." 

A real problem that arises in this day and age when we are inundated with information, and not merely the availability of information by the media, but particularly the Internet, is that we often, nowadays, take longer to make decisions or determine options than we did before such a glut of information was available to us.  There is also a tendency in this present-day situation to delay making decisions because the next, updated, item of information will imminently bombard us.

In his book Intuitive Decision-making in an Age of Chaos, Paul O'Brien writes: "We've always known that the quality of our decisions determines our success in life. But in recent times, the need for good decision-making has become overwhelming. Our media bombarded brains are confronted with as many choices in a single year as our grandparents faced in decades. The Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times" has come true with a vengeance."

Tne solution to this problem is to use our intuition.  In the quotation from Dr Joyce Brothers that heads the introduction to this article, intuition ("hunches") is usually based on facts filed away just below the conscious level.

"The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery.  There comes a leap in consciousness, call it intuition or what you will, the solution comes to you and you don't know how or why." - Albert Einstein

In an article published in the online edition of Science News some years ago, it was stated that a line of research had ascertained that children who adopt multiple problem-solving strategies on maths task, even though these include wrong strategies, usually learn more than do peers who start out with only one or two strategies, even if they are correct ones.  The explanation given is that the mental strategies of children typically draw on their intuitive knowledge about numbers and other topics.

So what exactly do we mean by intuition.  One definition is that it is an unconscious form of knowledge.  It is sometimes confused with "instinct".  But instinct is not, or does not necessarily imply, knowledge or experience.  Instinct derives from some primordial, non-intellectual base, whereas intuition has a definite intellectual or empirical base, even though the practitioner is not consciously aware of it.  Thus brainstorming, which is so widely used in both scientific and non-scientific environments, is an effective use of intuition.



Human curiosity and the desire to find meaning in events makes us suckers for non-rational beliefs.  It is easier for us to accept Jung's "meaningful coincidence", i.e. synchronicity, than to believe that coincidences might be totally meaningless.  If it looks like pork, tastes likes pork and smells like pork, it must be pork, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.  If you play red, you will ultimately win, regardless of how often black has come up.  Coincidence means more than statistics.  And how many people have gone broke or insane or both believing that?

The law of truly large numbers says that with a large enough sample many odd coincidences are likely to happen.   You may be surprised to learn that In a random selection of twenty-three persons there is a 50 percent chance that at least two of them celebrate the same birth date.[6]

Now, let us assume that you believe the odds of something happening are a million to one. Such odds might strike you as being so large as to rule out chance or coincidence. However, with over 6 billion people on earth, a million to one shot will occur frequently. Say the odds are a million to one that when a person has a dream of an airplane crash, there is an airplane crash the next day. With 6 billion people having an average of 250 dream themes each per night,[7] there should be about 1.5 million people a day who have dreams that seem clairvoyant. The number is actually likely to be larger, since we tend to dream about things that legitimately concern or worry us, and the data of dreams is usually vague or ambiguous, allowing a wide range of events to count as fulfilling our dreams.


"That a particular specified event or coincidence will occur is very unlikely.  That some astonishing unspecified events will occur is certain.  That is why remarkable coincidences are noted in hindsight, not predicted with foresight." - David G. Myers


It is but human nature to search for patterns even where none exist. We attempt to impose a gestalt on randomness because chaos is impossible to comprehend, hence our fascination with recurrent themes. We feel something of great import is going on if a particular number comes up time and again, and we are unsettled by it.

And yet, it's all randomness. That is not to say that at times any number plucked from the air will not appear more often than is the norm because such clumpings are only an expected part of the process of random distribution. Even though a flipped coin comes up heads five hundred times out of a thousand, it does not follow that each 'head' occurrence is immediately followed by a 'tails' — inevitably during a run of a thousand trials, there will be moments wherein the 'tails' tally varies significantly from the 'heads' count. Clumping can and does occur, and random numbers seemingly appear more often at various moments in time. Over the long run, of course, everything evens out. But at the moment when 13 comes up four times in a row on a roulette wheel, or 11 seems to jump off the page at one, it all seems so very eerie. [8]


What about those famous coincidences between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy?

Coincidences often appear as a repetition of events, although not played out in exactly  the same way each time, yet weirdly corresponding. Such are the coincidences in events between Abraham Lincoln (16th President of the U.S.) and John F. Kennedy (35th President of the U.S.) that have received much attention. 

Lincoln was elected President in 1860, while Kennedy was elected President in 1960. Lincoln’s successor - Andrew Johnson - was born in 1808, while Kennedy’s successor - Lyndon Johnson - was born in 1908. Lincoln’s killer - John Wilkes Booth - was born in 1839, while Kennedy’s killer - Lee Harvey Oswald - was born in 1939. The names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters. Lincoln’s secretary was called Kennedy, while Kennedy’s secretary was called Lincoln. Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s successors both had the surname Johnson. The names Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson each contain thirteen letters. The names John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald each contain fifteen letters.

Lincoln and Kennedy were both killed on a Friday. Both were killed in the presence of their wives. Both were shot from behind and in the head. Booth shot Lincoln in a theatre and hid in a warehouse, while Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and hid in a theatre. Both assassins were killed before being brought to trial.

Lincoln and Kennedy were both directly concerned with Civil Rights. Booth and Oswald were both Southerners favouring unpopular ideas.[5]

But if we compare other relevant attributes we fail to find coincidences. Lincoln and Kennedy were born and died in different months, dates, and states, and neither date is 100 years apart. Their ages at death were different, as were the names of their wives. Of course, had any of these features corresponded for the two presidents, it would have been included in the list of "mysterious" coincidences. For any two people with reasonably eventful lives it is possible to find coincidences between them. Two people meeting at a party often find some striking coincidence between them, but what it is -- birthdate, hometown, etc. -- is not predicted in advance.[6]



Since the theory of synchronicity is not testable according to the classical scientific method, it falls more readily into the area of pseudoscience; or an example of magical thinking, a term used by historians of religion to describe one kind of non-scientific causal reasoning. 


Probability theory can attempt to explain events such as the plum pudding incident related above,in our normal world, without any interference by any universal alignment forces. However, the correct variables required for actually computing the probability cannot be found. This is not to say that synchronicity is not a good model for describing a certain kind of human experience - but it is a reason for refusal of the idea that synchronicity should be considered a "hard fact", i.e. an actually existing principle of our universe.  


Supporters of the theory claim that since the scientific method is applicable only to those phenomena that are reproducible, independent of observer and quantifiable, the argument that synchronicity is not scientifically 'provable' should be considered a red herring as, by definition, synchronistic events are not independent of the observer, since the observer's unique history is precisely what gives the synchronistic event meaning for the observer.A synchronistic event appears like just another meaningless 'random' event to anyone else without the unique prior history which correlates to the event. This reasoning claims that the principle of synchronicity raises the question of the subjectivity of significance and meaning in the sequence of natural events.


Synchronicity may be a fascinating concept which may well be worth more study.  By all means enjoy the exploration, but try not to lose track of who you are during the journey.


[1] Synchronicity, An Acausal Connecting Principle, by C G Jung, from the article "On Synchronicity", Appendix, page. 104 

[2]  Ibid, page. 21.

[3]  "There is one common flow, one common breathing, all things are in sympathy. The whole organism and each one of its parts are working in conjunction for the same purpose... the great principle extends to the extremest part, and from the extremest part it returns to the great principle, to the one nature, being and not-being."  - Hippocrates (attrib.)

[4]  C.G. Jung ibid, page 74

[5]   See where these coincidences are described in more detail and further, even more absurd, coincidences will be found.

[6]   View - Coincidences - Remarkable or Random by Bruce Martin.

[7]  Hines, Terence, Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, 1990.