Research Suggests That Synchronicities Can Aid Psychotherapy
Therapist confidence about using synchronicity correlates with outcome.
Posted Nov 25, 2020
Carl Jung described the paradigmatic synchronicity during psychotherapy. Since then Jungians and others have recorded single cases. Recently investigators have carried out systematic research in the use of synchronicity during psychotherapy. Here's hoping increasingly more researchers will study the ways in which synchronicity can become a useful psychotherapeutic technique as has Dr. Reefschläger in this report. (BDB)
My name is Gunnar Immo Reefschläger, and I am a researcher from Frankfurt, Germany. I focus on modern concept research in the field of Analytical Psychology. Moreover, I am a clinical psychologist, a psychodynamic-oriented personal coach, and currently, a psychotherapeutically and psychoanalytical candidate at the Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis in Andernach, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Having finished and released my dissertation in German in 2018, Dr. Bernard Beitman kindly encouraged me to publish my findings for an English speaking readership.
In the following, I would like to give you a short and concise introduction to some of my general findings. After giving you an example of a typical participant's report of synchronicity that happened in the context of psychotherapy, I will explain how I came across Carl Jung's concept of synchronicity, and how I conducted my study. Feel free to contact me through the links below if you have any thoughts.
A case of synchronicity in psychotherapy
First, I would like to give you a typical example of synchronicity that can happen in the context of psychotherapy. The following excerpt is from a case that can be found in my doctoral dissertation(1):
”A 16-year-old patient who is suffering from anxiety goes on a final school trip to Berlin. It is her first trip away from home; she feels fearful and excited at the same time. However, her feelings transform into being overwhelmed. She tries to contact me spontaneously by mobile phone. I almost never switch on my mobile phone, but exactly at this moment it is on and I can give comfort to my patient. As a consequence of this moment, our therapeutic relationship deepened as I saw her in our next session.”
We need more modern concept research: The way to my study
I became fascinated by stories like these when a friend gave me a copy of Hopcke’s book There Are No Accidents (2) where I read the term synchronicity for the first time. During my studies of psychology at school, I noticed to my surprise that there was very little research about the concept of synchronicity because it was labeled as “psychological non-sense“ by my behavioristic-focused psychology department. In general, Analytical Psychology and its Freudian cousin Psychoanalysis were discarded as non-scientific. However, I had the feeling that it was an important and crucial concept of psychotherapy that just needed to be investigated more since strange coincidences connect people in a way that can be useful for both patient and therapist and their relationship. Consequently, I looked for a psychology professor who would be interested in supporting my idea to give the concept of synchronicity an empirical foundation so it would be acknowledged as a valid therapeutic concept.
A first step to an empirical foundation of synchronicity: The study
For my study, I collected a number of cases where synchronistic moments happened in the context of psychotherapy. This first step took me a time period of nine months. My cases consisted of 1) personal interviews I had with therapists, 2) synchronistic moments that happened during therapy which were documented by articles, books, and literature, and 3) questionnaires that Jungian therapists could use as an alternative to personal interviews.
To get a high number of personal interviews, I reached out to all Jungian training institutes that were listed on the website of the International Association for Analytical Psychology (3) asking them if they would be willing to endorse my study and send a study invitation via e-mail to their members. Institutes in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland received a German version of my study invitation, all other institutes an English version. In addition to that, I sent out study invitation flyers to all Jungian institutes in Germany (Berlin, Stuttgart, Munich) via mail. Next, I also posted my study invitation online on several forums, groups on Facebook. For people who reacted to my invitation over Facebook, I asked them to give me some kind of proof that they had been working as a therapist (e. g. scan of therapy license).
For therapists who responded to my study invitations, I sent an informed consent form that needed to be filled out by both therapist and patient allowing me to use the provided material. I conducted the actual interviews face-to-face, via telephone, or via Skype. For therapists who could or would not telephone, meet me personally, nor Skype, I offered to send my interview questions via email, so that they could answer them in a written form. In the end, I conducted 12 interviews personally and I received 12 email responses, in which therapists answered my interview questions in a written form.
Next, for conducting interviews, I searched for already documented synchronicities that happened during psychotherapy. I used different keywords and keyword combinations (e. g. “synchronicity”, “synchronicity and psychotherapy”, “synchronistic”) on Google and Google Scholar to find cases that were documented. Books, dissertations, and articles that seemed to be possibly relevant for my interest, I read in-depth (5; 6). The length of an actual narrative was not important, however, I dismissed narratives that were too short (e. g. when it only consisted of one sentence). In the end, I found 22 narratives of synchronicities that happened in the context of psychotherapy.
After nine months of collecting data, I had a total number of 46 cases/reports of synchronicities that happened in psychotherapy. Next, I looked at how these cases were presented and/or written. I analyzed the cases using several questions including: “Did the synchronicity include a dream, premonition, or a concrete statement/behavior?“ Or “Did the synchronicity happen over a physical distance or in a physical closeness?“ In this way, I had a total of 22 questions I asked the therapists I interviewed, or I answered them myself regarding the already documented cases. Most of my questions came from publications of my doctoral advisor Christian Roesler (7). Afterward, I tried to find out if there are any tendencies of all cases in response to my questions.
Here are some results I found: There were more synchronicities reported/documented 1) that included pre-monition than dreams 2) that happened in a physical distance, e. g. over several kilometers, rather than a physical closeness, e.g. over some meters 3) that happened not simultaneously, e.g. a person dreaming synchronistically of events occurring the next day, than simultaneously, e.g. a person knowing synchronistically what another person does at the same time. I also tried to look at several possible relations between my questions through statistical methods. My results show, for example, that there is a relation between a concrete, self-assured reaction of the therapist regarding an occurred synchronistic moment and a positive consequence for the therapeutic relationship. Moreover, the more secure, aware, and specific a therapist reacts to a synchronistic moment in the context of psychotherapy, the more likely it has a positive impact on the therapeutic relationship and the therapy process itself.
What needs to happen: More therapists need to know the concept of synchronicity
In conclusion, one can say that paying attention to synchronistic moments in therapies can be a beneficial factor for therapy if the therapist is trained and self-assured in the topic of synchronicity. Consequently, it would be advisable if the topic of synchronicity is being taught more in therapy training institutes, so that future therapists can recognize synchronicities better and see them as a potential source for additional therapeutic interventions, that can support the patient by experiencing even more meaning in his or her life.
Excerpt of case 23 of Reefschläger, G. (2018). Synchronizität in der Psychotherapie; Eine quantitativ-qualitative Untersuchung der strukturellen Beschaffenheit synchronistischer Phänomene im psychotherapeutischen Prozess. [Dissertation]. Frankfurt/Oder: Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt.
Hopcke, R. H. (1998). There are no accidents: Synchronicity and the stories of our lives. Riverhead Books (Hardcover).
International Association for Analytical Psychology – IAAP. (2020, November 21). https://iaap.org
Hill, J. (2011). Synchronicity and grief: The phenomenology of meaningful coincidence as it arises during bereavement. [Dissertation]. Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.
Brandon, N. (2015). Synchronicity: A phenomenological study of Jungian analysts' lived experience of meaningful coincidence in the context of psychotherapy. [Dissertation]. California Institute of Integral Studies.
Roesler, C. (Ed.). (2018). Research in analytical psychology: empirical research. Milton Park, Abingdon: Routledge