When certain things happen in our life around the same time, and somehow, they appear to be strangely connected or meaningful: Do we call it divine guidance, or a mere coincidence? Four perspectives on some of the big questions surrounding the phenomenon of synchronicity.
A wise man (the character Sonny Kapoor in the 2015 feel-good film The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) once said: “Coincidence is just a word when you cannot see the bigger plan."
This is just one interpretation of what it means to have synchronicity in our life.
"Synchronicity refers to seemingly random events that carry a strong sense of meaning," said Allan Combs, co-author of 'Synchronicity: Through the Eyes of Science, Myth and the Trickster,' one of the experts giving us his perspective. "You think of a friend you have not seen for years, and the phone rings. Guess who?? Or seemingly haphazard events that seem almost unquestionably meaningful."
Using another example, Combs ─ who is a Consciousness Researcher, Neuropsychologist and Systems Theorist at the California Institute of Integral Studies, where he is the Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies ─ added: "Carl Jung told the story of a man who died of a heart condition, while returning from the doctor's office carrying with him a report saying his health was excellent. The strange thing, though, is that while he was away, his home was covered with black birds. A rare event that had all the flavour of a dark omen."
So, we wondered at Breaking Perspectives, when certain (strange) things take place in our lives around the same time, that together appear to have meaning, does this mean the universe could be aligning for our benefit: That there is more to it, as is often thought? "Well, unquestionably meaningful such events might seem. But are they? For some they are," said Combs.
“The strange thing, though, is that while he was away, his home was covered with black birds. A rare event that had all the flavour of a dark omen"
There's more going on
The well-known Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung is widely considered to have introduced the notion of synchronicity and Dr. Pninit Russo-Netzer, a Senior Lecturer and Researcher who has published scholarly journal articles and books in the fields of positive and existential psychology, well-being, wholeness, and meaning in life, told Breaking Perspectives: “In its broadest sense, Carl Jung’s synchronicity refers to a psychologically-meaningful relationship between internal events (i.e., thoughts, images, dreams), and one or more external events that occur simultaneously.”
“In Jung's words," Dr. Russo-Netzer continued, such experiences reflect: ‘The coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance.’”
Dr. Russo-Netzer is, among other things, the founder of the Academic Training Programme for Logotherapy (meaning-oriented psychotherapy) at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, and the head of the ‘Compass’ Institute for the Study and Application of Meaning in life, and using this approach as a basis, she has conducted a special study into synchronicity together with Dr. Tamar Icekson from Peres Academic Center, Israel.
“Despite its deep roots in early psychological theory, hardly any systematic scientific research has been conducted on synchronicity experiences as an everyday phenomenon,” Dr. Russo-Netzer told us, and she explaining they set out explore the lived experience of synchronicity experiences in everyday life.
What they found, in short, is that for someone to experience synchronicity and meaningful coincidence in their life, they need to be receptive to both their inner as well as their outer world. Then an ‘exceptional encounter’ would have to take place: A sudden unexpected event that is in line with the person’s inner state of mind. These two combined would then trigger the third building block to occur: ‘Specific emotions and meaning-detecting,’ which Dr. Russo-Netzer described it as ‘a conscious process of associating the event with a person's own life narrative.’
“So, said Dr. Russo-Netzer, adding that their research also showed that synchronicity is something many of us experience, “you could say that what's behind synchronicity, can be called a sense of interconnectedness and some sort of guidance for some people, as long as they are open to the experience and detect meaning in it.”
Ancient wisdom and animals
Some say that Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity came from his fascination with the paranormal. Looking at things in this way, Combs explained, it is particularly animals that can signify good omens in our lives.
It is also said that Jung had a special fascination with fish, which he considered a symbolic representation of our subconscious, or ‘emblems of the spirit,’ as Combs pointed out, adding that Christ too is often represented as a fish. In fact, when we encounter certain meaningful coincidences with animals in our lives, Combs said they can be: "Signalling positive circumstances for the person with whom they have a special relationship."
As for his experiences with animals and synchronicity in his own life, said Combs: "Crows have always been special for me, and have arrived in numbers for special events such as my wedding."
In a similar light, for someone such as Lumi Pelinku, an Intuitive Astrologer, Energy Healer, and Transformation Coach, there too is power in the signs in synchronicity presented to us — provided we were to ask questions about them.
This is because, she told Breaking Perspectives, such ‘divine intervention’ comes to us when we need it, and when we ask for it, and so she said: "The definition of synchronicity is a series of continued patterns that show up to the perceiver at times in which they are seeking confirmation in their pondering. "
To which she added: "It is most often noticed subtly at first, and to those who do not recognise the persistence, the signs then come in waves."
"So, synchronicity extends messages from the ethereal realm as the way to step out of our current reality in order to make better choices," she went on to explain, and added: "I believe these signs are sent by ‘the Creator’ and from those who reside in the celestial realm, as the way to help us remember who we are, and that assistance can be given if we ask."
In fact, for experts such as Pelinku, synchronicity is something that is now occurring more than ever, and she said: "We are living in a time that the collective consciousness is ascending in its frequency, and signs and synchronicities are much stronger than ever before.”
"We are living in a time that the collective consciousness is ascending in its frequency, and signs and synchronicities are much stronger than ever before”
For Prof. Magda Osman, a Professor in Basic and Applied Decision-Making and Head of Research and Analysis at the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge, who together with Dr. Mark K. Johansen has explored the science behind the relationship between coincidences and the human mind, seemingly meaningful coincidences are a fundamental consequence of rational cognition.
"The definition that Dr. Mark Johansen and I have proposed for coincidences,” Prof Osman explained to Breaking Perspectives, “is that they are surprising pattern repetitions that are observed to be unlikely by chance, but are nonetheless ascribed to chance; since the search for causal mechanisms has not produced anything more plausible than mere chance.”
So, for Dr. Johansen and Prof. Osman, a coincidence that might appear to have a special meaning is more about our human tendency to notice patterns than anything else, and said Prof. Osman: "Humans are essentially pattern-detecting machines. So, coincidences are based on repeating events, they are surprising to us, and that is because they seem unexpected or rare."
She added: "Throwing a dice several times in a row and getting 4,6,4,2,5,5, might be rare, as is getting 6,6,6,6,6,6: But one seems more meaningful, because we have added some value to some patterns than others. The point here is that some things are surprising but explainable."
She also said: "The experience of coincidences is a natural consequence of a rational cognitive system, which is designed to update beliefs about the world based on the observations and experiences we have. The cognitive system is rational.”
Some experts call the human tendency to seek and perceive connections between unrelated phenomena “apophenia,” and this tendency to detect patterns, say experts such as Prof. Osman, has to do with our human need for survival.
Pelinku, whose viewpoint might be considered more spiritual, reflected similarly: "As human souls, we have an inner ‘knowing’ to look out for patterns as the means of survival."
"As human souls, we have an inner ‘knowing’ to look out for patterns as the means of survival"
Bringing it all together
When it comes to synchronicity, there are different perspectives. But, are they always opposing, as we often like to think?
"I suspect that many people would make the distinction between rational and psychological," said Prof. Osman, adding: "The psychological is associated with the messy, the emotional, the chaotic, the biased. Whereas the rational is pure and uncorrupted, neat and systematic. I'm embellishing perhaps, but for me they don't have to be in opposition to each other. Also, we can't take out the psychological from what is rational, because the mechanisms which I am describing as rational are in our heads.”
Dr. Pninit Russo-Netzer said: “A spiritual person might call it divine intervention, whereas a more psychological approach may attribute it to a human tendency to look for patterns and meaning in life," and she continued: "In our qualitative study, religious participants tended to describe synchronicity moments as a validation of their religious beliefs and worldviews, such as God’s providence. For secular participants, in contrast, the interpretation of synchronicity experiences appeared to be moderated through their own agency and reflection, rather than being centred in a higher power.”
For Pelinku, who pointed out that 'the spiritual connection can, for example, be interwoven into a science route, i.e. metaphysics,' in fact, different ways of seeing can even occur in one person, and she said: "While the rational and sceptics hold a unique space in defining their own free will in beliefs, oftentimes the ‘sceptics’ are also likely to witness the most incredible spiritual experiences, and that can happen in their hour of need; when in their most vulnerable state."
So, even the most logical mind can experience a miracle, and the most spiritual mind can take a logical or scientific point of view, she explained, and added: "Science is an incredible tool that we all have to appreciate, as it has paved the way for humanity to receive all the necessary care and education. There is an emergence of scientific, as well as spiritual studies in synchronicity, and I would not be surprised when the scientific community will extend their discoveries about the universal mysteries. Believing is the beautiful part, but for the sceptics, they may understand scientific language more than spiritual beliefs."
“Even the most logical mind can experience a miracle, and the most spiritual mind can take a logical or scientific point of view"
Russo-Netzer, P., & Icekson, T. (2020). Engaging with life: Synchronicity experiences as a pathway to meaning and personal growth. Current Psychology, 1-14
Russo-Netzer, P., & Icekson, T. (2023). An Underexplored Pathway to Life Satisfaction: The Development and Validation of the Synchronicity Awareness and Meaning-Detecting (SAMD) Scale. Frontiers in Psychology
Johansen, M. K., & Osman, M. (2015). Coincidences: A fundamental consequence of rational cognition. New Ideas in Psychology, 39, 34-44
Johansen, M. K., & Osman, M. (2020). Coincidence judgment in causal reasoning: How coincidental is this? Cognitive Psychology, 120, 101290