Magical Thinking, Delusions, or Synchronicity?

The Stories We Tell About Mysterious Phenomenon Shape Our Reality

Posted Jul 09, 2012

A lovelorn client recently disclosed that every time he receives a text, call or bumps into a particularly elusive woman he desires, the number “14” mysteriously appears. It’s usually 10:14 p.m., or June 14, or he spots her at the 14th Street subway stop.

My client, a successful yet self-effacing 20-something man with a penchant for unavailable women, sees the number as a sign from his deceased grandmother, who was born on January 14, that “he is on the right track” or “that everything is as it should be” whether or not things work out with the object of his affections.

I can only imagine that some of my colleagues might dismiss his numerical interpretation as magical thinking, a type of defense against the uncertainty and unpredictability of the universe by attributing grouped phenomenon (eg. his beloved, his grandmother and the number 14) to supernatural forces.

But as his therapist, I am less concerned about whether his grandmother is sending him messages from the netherworld, than the stories my client tells himself about what these signs mean. Every explanation about what happens in our lives is a narrative. These narratives shape our perception of reality and, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, can influence how the events in our life unfold.

If my client interpreted his numerically significant coincidences as a sign to do something drastic (like marry or harm her) I would have engaged him in a very different conversation than had he told me that it signified a cosmic alignment with the universe. In the former scenario, I would have pressed him to identify counter-narratives and explore the feelings that were at the heart of his desire to take action.

Human beings are natural storytellers and meaning makers. We have lucky numbers and charmed rabbit’s feet. Our problems may not lie so much in our beliefs that don’t stand up to scientific reasoning, but in our attachments to narratives that don’t serve us or cause us harm.

Even when a person’s perception of reality seems substantially skewed, therapists can help to reframe the context around the story without directly challenging the perception. A famous Hassidic story illustrates this point.  There one was a prince who thought he was a turkey. A wise man found him sitting naked under a table refusing to eat human food. Eventually, the wise man helped cure the prince by convincing him that dignified turkeys could wear silk robes and use utensils to eat meat and vegetables on fine china.

Similarly, psychologists know better than to challenge schizophrenic delusions. Yet calling someone’s perception of reality a “delusion” is just one interpretation of a story. Such interpretations become more difficult to make when seemingly irrational beliefs are more subtle and benign, as in the case of my client.

Famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung coined the term “synchronicity” to describe meaningful coincidences that could not be explained scientifically. In a famously documented case, Jung attributed the rare appearance of a golden scarab at his office window shortly after his patient recalled dreaming of the insect, as a sign that the dreamer was making progress in accessing her subconscious.

Jung believed that such demonstrations of synchronicity meant that a person had tapped into the collective unconscious, a universal knowledge beyond our everyday awareness that is shared by everyone. Artists draw from this stream of inspiration all the time; for example, when musician Paul Simon channels a song into existence that enjoys universal appeal.

Willy Wonka once said, “Where is fantasy bred, in the heart or in the head?” Whether we choose to call unexplained coincidences “magical thinking,” “synchronicity,” or “delusions,” our stories shape our reality, no matter how irrational they may seem to others.