Mind Over Matter
Could thought-mirroring synchronicities be more than chance?
Posted Aug 16, 2019
We are all well acquainted with the fact that our thoughts and emotions affect the content of our dreams. We hardly find this surprising, given that our dreams only exist within the mind. On the other hand, we take the waking world to exist independently of our mental life, and that makes it much more disconcerting when, from time to time, our thoughts and emotions appear to exert an uncanny influence over waking events.
Let me give a personal example.
A few years ago, I was spending the weekend with some old college friends at a Pennsylvania state park. For several weeks leading up to our get-together, I had been increasingly preoccupied with thoughts of France, a country where I had once lived, and in particular with thoughts of a French friend of mine with whom I’d lost contact some years before.
At one point during the weekend, I was riding around with one of my college friends looking for a place to buy food when she pulled out her smartphone and asked it to locate the nearest grocery store. Then, because she was behind the wheel, she handed her phone to me. When I took the phone from her, it was displaying a list of grocery stores in our immediate vicinity, close to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I tapped “MAP,” and when the map loaded a few seconds later, the stores it displayed were all labeled “E. Leclerc”—the name of a French supermarket chain—and each tagged with the name of a French town, one of which I vaguely remembered from my years in France: Carhaix.
“Your phone thinks we’re in France,” I said to my friend, handing it back for her to see. She was as puzzled by its behavior as I was. She said she had never used her phone to look up anything in France, and as soon as she pushed another button on the phone, it started showing Pennsylvania again.
When I got home a few days later, I decided to Google the whereabouts of my French friend on the day of this incident. I discovered that, though he lived some 100 miles from Carhaix, on that particular day, he had been attending an event within two miles of it.
This staggering coincidence—if coincidence is what it was—led me to get back in touch with my friend, and he proceeded to tell me about a life-changing event that had recently happened to him. That news ended up changing the course of my own life in a very positive direction, healing an old wound and giving me tremendous peace.
This incident with the smartphone map is exactly the sort of intuitive and highly symbolic event that we expect from our dreams, the sort of event that often leads us to a better acquaintance with our own unconscious needs and feelings and that can prompt us to make decisions that benefit our emotional health. But here, it was waking life that was behaving like a dream, with the electronics of this smartphone appearing to respond to my unstated mental concerns, in a direction that ultimately prompted beneficial action.
Psychiatrist Carl Jung (1960) famously described an analogous situation that aided the growth of one of his patients. This woman was describing to him a dream in which someone had given her a piece of expensive jewelry in the form of a golden scarab. Suddenly, Jung heard a tapping at his office window and discovered that it was a gold-green scarab beetle bumping against the glass. He promptly scooped it up and showed it to his patient, saying, “Here is your scarab!” This timely appearance of an actual living scarab apparently broken through this woman’s psychological defense mechanisms and aided in the progress of her therapy. Jung coined the term ‘synchronicity’ for this sort of fortuitous external event that mimics the internal activity of the mind.
Here's one more example.
Journalist Tom Shroder (1999) tells how, when he was a young man, he was agonizing over some big life decisions, including which of two young women to become more deeply involved with. He was on a long road trip with a friend, and over the course of this road trip, he came to associate each of the two women with a different song: one with Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” and the other with Bruce Springsteen’s “She’s the One.” Finally, Shroder was so fed up with talking about the problem and being unable to come to a decision that he announced to his friend that he was just going to wait for a sign.
When Shroder made this pronouncement, he and his friend were sitting, at night, in a deserted campground. Less than a minute later, they heard a vehicle approaching. It drove through two other loops of empty campsites before coming to a stop at the site right next to theirs. When the vehicle door opened, out poured the sounds of Springsteen’s “She’s the One.”
Do these three cases prove that there is some sort of direct connection between our minds and the world outside? Of course not. The Law of Truly Large Numbers tells us that, given the large number of people in the world constantly experiencing things, events like this are bound to happen to some people just by chance. The relevant question is whether things like this happen more often than would be expected by chance (Rawlette 2019).
One way scientists have tackled this question is by attempting to bring this alleged phenomenon into the laboratory. Recreating complex psychological phenomena under controlled conditions is not an easy feat (Braude 2014, ch. 6), but scientists have nonetheless found some suggestive effects when studying possible mind-matter connections in the laboratory. For instance, for almost 30 years between 1979 and 2007, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) program studied the possibility of effects of human thought and intention on random physical processes of various sorts: for instance, the operation of microelectronic noise diode units and the fall of polystyrene balls in a “random mechanical cascade,” which looked something like a giant pinball machine with no levers. PEAR’s decades of peer-reviewed research suggested a direct connection between conscious human intention and otherwise random physical processes (Jahn and Dunne 2011).
Laboratory research on the effects of human thought on physical processes goes far beyond the PEAR program, however. A 2006 meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin (Bösch et al. 2006), for example, examined a total of 380 studies examining the effect of human intention on random number generators. Its authors concluded that there was “a significant but very small overall effect size.” They hypothesized that this apparent effect was due to publication bias—that is, the result of many unsuccessful studies’ having been conducted but left unpublished—and they calculated that 1,544 such missing studies would be needed to erase the apparent effect shown by the published studies. However, in response to this meta-analysis, Radin et al. (2006) conducted a survey of some of the researchers who had contributed to the scientific literature on this subject. The number of unpublished studies reported by this group (an average of 1 per researcher) suggested that there were likely to be a total of only 59 studies on this subject that had been left unpublished, and some of these were reported to also show significant positive results. Even were all these unpublished studies to show no effect, however, their number appeared to be nowhere near what would be needed to erase the effect visible in the 380 published studies.
Given the potentially revolutionary implications of these laboratory results, it’s unsurprising that debate over their meaning continues, with some scientists dismissing them as artifacts, others convinced that they demonstrate a genuine effect, and still others intrigued enough to contemplate new and improved experimental designs (Varvoglis and Bancel 2015). If this phenomenon continues to be repeatable, however, it could confirm what some of those who’ve experienced strange coincidences already suspect: that the world we live in is more like a dream than we’ve realized, and perhaps holds the potential to bring us into better acquaintance with our own inner lives.
Bösch, H., Steinkamp, F., and Boller, E. (2006). Examining psychokinesis: The interaction of human intention with random number generators—A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 132(4): 497-523.
Braude, S. E. (2014). Crimes of reason: On mind, nature, and the paranormal. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Jahn, R. G., and Dunne, B. J. (2011). Consciousness and the source of reality: The PEAR odyssey. Princeton, NJ: ICRL Press.
Jung, C. G. (1960, 2010). Synchronicity: An acausal connecting principle (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Radin, D., Nelson, R., Dobyns, Y., and Houtkooper, J. (2006). Reexamining psychokinesis: Comment on Bösch, Steinkamp, and Boller. Psychological Bulletin 132(4): 529-32.
Rawlette, S. H. (2019). Coincidence or psi? The epistemic import of spontaneous cases of purported psi identified post-verification. Journal of Scientific Exploration 33(1): 9-42.
Shroder, T. (1999). Old souls: The scientific evidence for past lives. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Varvoglis, M., and Bancel, P. A. (2015). Micro-psychokinesis. In E. Cardeña, J. Palmer, and D. Marcusson-Clavertz (Eds.), Parapsychology: A handbook for the 21st century (pp. 266-81). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.