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Science & Synchronicity

Science&SynccoverCan quantum physics help explain eerie coincidences?

“Synchronicity is no more baffling or mysterious than the discontinuities of physics. It is only the ingrained belief in the sovereign power of causality that creates intellectual difficulties and makes it appear unthinkable that causeless events exist or could ever exist.” -C.G. Jung, “Synchronicity”


Miller: A lot o’ people don't realize what's really goin’ on. They view life as a bunch o' unconnected incidents an’ things. They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice o' coincidence that lays on top o' everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: Suppose you're thinkin' about a plate o' shrimp. Suddenly somebody'll say, like, “plate,” or “shrimp,” or “plate o' shrimp” out of the blue. No explanation. No point in lookin' for one, either. It's all part of a cosmic unconciousness.


Otto: You eat a lot of acid, Miller, back in the hippie days? -Repo Man

The other night I was having a “Where are they now?” attack: an uncontrollable urge to find out what’s become of old friends, ex-girlfriends, etc. My orgy of nostalgia culminated in the early hours of morning, when I decided to do a Google search for a long-lost buddy of mine that everyone used to call Chet. (Our reasons for calling him Chet were complex—suffice to say that they involved a character from a Cheetos commercial by the name of Chester Cheetah, and that everyone but Chet thought the nickname was just super.) I found a band on MySpace called Gathering Moss whose singer had Chet’s name, and there was someone on Facebook who looked like he might be the guy, but I couldn’t be sure either of these people was the Chet I was looking for. I went to bed, figuring, “Maybe some other time.”

“Some other time” came sooner than I’d expected. When I woke up in the morning, I found two emails waiting for me: one from the band Gathering Moss, and another from the Chet whose Facebook profile I’d just found. My astonishment quickly gave way to anger—clearly, there was spyware attached to my computer, and I was being sent junk mail based on recent Internet activity. Wrong. Both of these emails were from the man himself, my long-lost buddy Chet. Incredible, but true: After going more than 15 years without communicating, we’d both picked the same night to look each other up online.

It gets weirder: Impressed by this freaky alignment of circumstances, I flashed on the last time I’d spoken with Chet, which I believe was in 1993: I’d just returned to Santa Cruz after living in L.A. for about a year and a half, and I’d dropped by The Poet and the Patriot on a hunch that I’d run into an old friend there—probably Chet. Nothing was happening, so I gulped down my last few drops of beer, turned to the friend I was with and said, “Screw it. Let’s go to Taco Bell.” (I’ve learned a thing or two about diet since then, by the way.) As I was getting up from my seat, Chet walked in the door and immediately spied me. Standing there with Taco Bell bag in hand, he gaped at me in obvious disbelief, blurting out, “Dude! I just had a dream about you last night!”

Occurrences like these are examples of what Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung named “synchronicity”: “the simultaneous occurrence of two meaningful but not causally connected events.” For some people, such happenings are treasured confirmations that life is more than a disjointed mural of birthdays, board meetings and bee stings that keep our senses occupied as we trudge toward the coffin. For others, they’re simply twin lemons on the cosmic slot machine—amusing anomalies that the random event generator spits out from time to time.

The rationalist will explain this kind of thing, quite reasonably, as follows: If 500 different people think of Mickey Mouse at 2:45 today, the law of averages says that with all the Disney propaganda floating around the globe, at least one of those people will see a picture or replica of Mickey Mouse and think it “eerie.” In other words, there’s an awful lot happening on this planet, so it’s inevitable that some events from Column A are going to match up with events from Column B in weird ways. You call that supernatural? Go hump a gnome, star child.

If you’ve ever experienced a truly uncanny synchronicity yourself, though—or several in rapid succession, as is sometimes the case—then perhaps you’ve found that the issue isn’t quite so simple. Once in a while something happens that’s so unlikely, so patently absurd, that it leaves you with the unshakeable feeling that you’ve just gotten a prank call from the Other Side. I’m not talking about minor synchronicities, where, say, you’re dressed as The Devil on Halloween, and you make a purchase that leaves you with $6.66 in change; I’m talking about when on top of that, the cashier is dressed as an angel, and at the same time that she hands you your $6.66, you hear a line about “giving The Devil his due” in the song playing over the PA.

Right now some of you are rolling your eyes and grumbling to yourselves about what a mush-brained, dandelion-smoking Mork from Ork I am for suggesting that an oogah-boogah notion like synchronicity could possibly have any validity. Well … good. Not so very long ago, people were being hunted down, tortured and murdered for promoting the heretical notion that the Earth revolved around the sun, and I salute skeptics like yourself for fighting the kinds of superstitious belief systems that gave rise to that sad situation. Now, however, we find ourselves at yet another turning point, and as certain sacred dogmas of science are replaced by demonstrably more accurate models of reality, those who cling to the old mechanistic worldview risk becoming the new fundamentalists.

Consider the fact that no less of a scientific genius than Albert Einstein once dismissed nonlocality, the strange phenomenon in which one object has a direct influence on another object without being anywhere near that object or even exerting any physical force (now a widely accepted, though mysterious, aspect of quantum physics), as “spooky action at a distance.” Like synchronicity, such activity doesn’t fit our present models of How It All Is … but there it is, right before the researchers’ eyes.

{mosimage}Permit yourself the heresy of supposing, for a moment, that not all claims of synchronistic events are products of selective perception, the law of averages and/or outright delusion, but that some are eyewitness accounts of a particularly vexing form of “spooky action at a distance” that may one day be re-shelved from “metaphysics” to “physics.”

That Synching Feeling

At age 19 (back in the early ’90s, when Chet and I were the best of friends), I was introduced to the ideas of philosopher Robert Anton Wilson by way of his book “Prometheus Rising.” One passage from the book struck me as especially intriguing: At the end of a chapter about archetypes, Wilson wrote, “Contemplating these issues usually triggers Jungian synchronicities. See how long after reading this chapter you encounter an amazing coincidence.”

Given the author’s playful style, it was difficult to discern whether he literally meant that thinking about these sorts of issues would cause synchronistic events to happen, or that it would simply lead us to notice coincidences. The key point of the book, after all, was “What the thinker thinks, the prover proves”—that is, we tend to find whatever it is we look for. If you have it in your head that you’re going to find quarters wherever you go, you’ll notice quarters on the ground all over the place. If you think the number 23 has special significance, you’ll notice the number 23 everywhere. Conversely, if you’re convinced that synchronicity is a family-sized bucket of bull, you’ll collect data to help convince yourself of this.

Either way, Wilson’s statement checked out: Mere hours after I’d read that passage, a friend of mine dropped by my house and casually asked if I’d be interested in going to a conference in Palo Alto where some of the world’s foremost psychedelic philosophers would be speaking … including that “Prometheus Rising” guy, Robert Anton Wilson. This in itself made me do a double-take, but the clincher came at the conference the following day (Hell yes, I accepted my friend’s offer), when, by chance—or something—I found myself walking side-by-side with Wilson in a hallway at Stanford University. (Mind you, there were thousands of people at this conference, and Wilson sightings at this event were few and far between, so at the very least, we can say this was a fluky thing to happen.) Seizing the opportunity, I quickly introduced myself to Wilson and got right down to business: “So, I’ve been reading ‘Prometheus Rising,’ and I have some questions for you.” Thus began a half-hour conversation that ended on a pair of couches in the building’s lobby, where I picked the brain of the author whose book had just told me to be on the lookout for amazing coincidences. (Later that night, I’d also have a memorable dialog with Timothy Leary, but that’s a whole other cube of sugar.)

Wilson has written exhaustively on the subject of synchronicity, but the idea of his that’s most relevant to our discussion is a point he made about quantum physics in the documentary film Maybe Logic: The Lives and Ideas of Robert Anton Wilson, released four years before his death in 2007. Here, he recounts an event that befell him and his wife in the early ’90s after they’d moved from Los Angeles to what they thought was Santa Cruz: “We had something stolen from our car, and we called the police, and it turned out we didn’t live in Santa Cruz—we lived in a town called Capitola. The post office thought we lived in Santa Cruz, but the police thought we lived in Capitola. I started investigating this, and a reporter at the local newspaper told me we didn’t live in either Santa Cruz or Capitola; we lived in a unincorporated area called Live Oak. Now, quantum mechanics is just like that, except that in the case of Santa Cruz, Capitola and Live Oak, we don’t get too confused, because we remember we invented the lines on the map. But quantum physics seems confusing because a lot of people think we didn’t invent the lines, so it seems hard to understand how a particle can be in three places at the same time without being anywhere at all.”

Quantum Metaphysics?

As Wilson stated, the fabric of the universe doesn’t play by human rules—even scientific ones. To understand just how strange things can get in the quantum realm, we need to take a look at Bell’s Theorem, often referred to as the Pandora’s box of modern physics. As long as Wilson has gotten us into this mess, let’s let him do the explaining (again from “Prometheus Rising”): “Bell’s Theorem is highly technical, but in ordinary language it amounts to something like this: There are no isolated systems; every particle in the universe is in ‘instantaneous’ (faster-than-light) communication with every other particle. The Whole System, even the parts that are separated by cosmic distances, functions as a Whole System.”

While it might sound like a bliss ninny’s wishful thinking to say there’s a scientific case for the idea that all things are connected, this is, in fact, exactly what Bell’s Theorem implies. Described by physicist Henry Stapp as “the most profound discovery of science” in 1975, Bell’s Theorem points to a conundrum known as entanglement, in which two physically related particles are linked in such a way that anything that happens to one of these particles is instantaneously communicated to the other, regardless of distance. According to quantum mechanics, any two things that have ever interacted are entangled in this way forevermore.

Bruce Rosenblum, professor of physics at UCSC and coauthor of the book “Quantum Enigma,” notes that although the present record distance for this kind of communication between particles is 144 km. (89 miles), “physicists don’t really doubt that it would also work from Moscow to Manhattan. According to quantum theory, this should happen across the universe.”

Rosenblum, who claims to have met Einstein in the 1950s and John Bell in the late ’80s, adds, “What quantum mechanics is saying is that there’s an interconnectedness to the universe. For big things, it’s not demonstrable: It’s too complicated, too messy. But in principle, it’s there.”

Yes, even big things like human beings. According to Rosenblum, if two people meet and shake hands, they are forever entangled, but this entanglement is so complicated that it can’t be observed. After all, those two people have also interacted with the floor, with the air, etc., etc., etc.

{mosimage}When you consider the fact that human beings are composed of subatomic particles that are constantly sending and receiving information, it seems worth asking whether the kind of complex entanglement Rosenblum describes might be what’s going on backstage during certain types of synchronistic events. If so, we probably needn’t bother trying to figure out what that event “means” or “why” it happened—we’re dealing with a system of connections so vast and elaborate that trying to understand this individual occurrence would be like trying to follow the path of a single thread in a ball of string the size of Jupiter.

A 1978 experiment led by Dr. Jacobo Grinberg-Zylberbaum of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (later replicated by neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick of London) provided what may have been a demonstration of quantum entanglement on the macroscopic level: Two test subjects were put in individual electromagnetically isolated rooms, and each subject’s brain was hooked up to an electroencephalograph. One test subject was then shown a series of strobe light flashes, which produced a unique brainwave pattern on the EEG. Strangely, the same pattern appeared on the other test subject’s EEG, although he was not shown the flashes. When the first test subject was given no stimulus, this correlation of brainwave patterns did not occur, nor did increases in distance affect the reproducibility of the experiment. In reference to this experiment, theoretical nuclear physicist Amit Goswami, PhD has written, “I am convinced that the transferred potential can be interpreted as the effect of quantum nonlocal interaction effect between correlated brains.”

As noted in books by the likes of Brian Clegg, Fritjof Capra and Gary Zukav (as well as in the regrettably New Age-y film What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?), the findings of quantum mechanics more and more frequently confirm notions previously associated exclusively with mysticism. One of the latest enthusiasts of such discoveries to come into public consciousness is French physicist Bernard d’Espagnat, who was announced as the winner of the $1.4 million 2009 Templeton Prize, the world’s largest annual award to an individual, on March 16. According to the award’s organizers, d’Espagnat’s work in quantum mechanics affirms a spiritual dimension of existence: Mysteries such as entanglement have led the scientist to perceive an interconnectedness and wholeness to the universe and a “veiled reality” underlying space, energy and matter.

Rosenblum, too, has had his paradigm remodeled by the “quantum enigma.” “To me there’s no question: It changes your worldview,” he states. “Even if you don’t know it, the worldview that everybody, including physicists, lives with is Newtonian: It’s the real world; everything has a cause. Oh, yes, there’s some randomness, of course, but basically, things separate, and one thing doesn’t influence the other. Hey, we know the Newtonian worldview works, but ultimately, we know it’s flawed. Does that affect you spiritually? Some people say yes.”

Meta-Metaphysics

Strike a mounted tuning fork that produces the pitch of A, and its oscillations will cause another mounted A tuning fork in the same room to vibrate “in sympathy.” Though this probably would have seemed magical to pre-scientific societies, physics tells us that these forks are connected by the air particles that surround them, and that one responds to the other because of a shared overtone. That doesn’t mean that such activity isn’t amazing—it simply means that there’s an explanation for it. Similarly, if someone who had never been exposed to television saw the same program coming through two different TV sets, he or she might be baffled as to how information could “travel” so quickly from one television to the next, never suspecting much there was a bigger picture.

Perhaps enigmas like entanglement and synchronicity will eventually be demystified in this way, and we’ll find that they only seem weird to us because of our somewhat primitive perspectives (“primitive,” of course, being relative to what lies ahead). For now, when we encounter such mysteries, it might be useful to think of ourselves as third-century folks confounded by the riddle of the tuning forks. These tuning forks don’t have some mutual destiny or some message for each other, and there’s no specific “meaning” to the fact that one causes the other to vibrate; rather, we’re face-to-face with some kind of connection we don’t yet understand.

As I hammer these last words into my laptop at a coffee shop, the sight of a man walking through the front doorway is jolting the three women at the table behind me from their discussion of the archetypes that Wagner’s music evokes. “What an amazing coincidence!” one of them shouts to the man, who, it turns out, has some kind of profound connection to Wagner. “Were your ears burning?”

I could speculate here about people’s brainwaves entraining at a distance, about these people resonating in sympathy with each other by way of a “shared overtone” (the thought of Wagner) or some such “spooky” thing, or I could simply categorize this as yet another coincidence (one of many that have intersected with my awareness since I began writing this piece). Instead, I think I’ll follow my own advice and leave such questions to be answered in the future, when scientists and mystics alike are ready to abandon certain dearly cherished beliefs, and humanity is ready to see beyond boundaries that, as Wilson pointed out, exist solely in our minds.


Jung Einstein 

Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity has been entangled with quantum physics from day one. As revealed in Jung’s “Letters, Vol. 2,” it was a series of dinner conversations with Albert Einstein in Zurich between 1909 and 1913 that first got the psychiatrist “thinking about a possible relativity of time as well as space, and their psychic conditionality. More than thirty years later, this stimulus led to my relation with the physicist Professor W. Pauli and to my thesis of psychic synchronicity.”

Jung met Pauli shortly after the idea of synchronicity began to take solid form in Jung’s mind. Pauli, who, at age 21, wrote a book-length critique of Einstein’s theory of relativity that Einstein praised as accurate, insightful and thorough, was instrumental in establishing the foundations of quantum mechanics. One of his major contributions to science is the exclusion principle, which physicist F. David Peat describes in his book “Synchronicity: The Bridge between Matter and Mind” as the “discovery of an abstract pattern that lies hidden beneath the surface of atomic matter and determines its behavior in a non-causal way.” The influence of such concepts on Jung’s theory of synchronicity is unmistakable.

In 1934, after having Jung analyze several of his dreams, Pauli had a dream in which a man who looked like Einstein told him that quantum physics was only a one-dimensional part of a deeper reality. The following year, Einstein and physicists Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen presented a paper that inadvertently illustrated a mysterious, acausal connectedness between particles. This EPR (Einstein/Podolsky/Rosen) paper lodged three complaints against quantum mechanics, one of them being the implausibility of nonlocality: the direct influence of one object on another object from far away. (Einstein famously scorned such activity as “spooky action at a distance.”)

{mosimage}In the mid-’60s, physicist John Bell responded to the EPR paper by proving a theorem that provided a way of testing the validity of these “spooky actions.” The experiments that followed produced empirical evidence of nonlocality. Thus, Einstein inadvertently opened the gates to the study of two different kinds of “spooky action at a distance”—synchronicity and quantum entanglement (the latter of whose implications he ironically found disconcerting)—and Pauli deliberately helped bring these ideas into focus.


In Synch

All over the globe, we see a tendency of organisms and even inanimate objects to synchronize with each other. One of the most intriguing examples of this principle is entrainment, which is believed to be nature’s way of conserving energy. Entrainment was discovered in 1665 by Dutch scientist Christian Huygens, who found that if you put several grandfather clocks whose pendulums are swinging out of synch with one another in the same room, their pendulums will be moving in time with each other within a day or two.

Entrainment exists within the animal world as well: Through the phenomenon of collective motion, groups of organisms such as flocks of birds, schools of fish, swarms of insects and colonies of bacteria move as a single body. In a more romantic vein, there are multiple instances of synchronized courtships, such as when groups of male fireflies in Southeastern Asia flash their lights on and off in perfect synchronization to attract females, or when frogs or crickets “serenade” potential mates in unison. Recent research at Cornell University has also revealed that while mating, mosquitoes synchronize the frequencies of the beats of their wings (400 Hz for the female and 600 Hz for the male) into a “male/female” harmonic of 1200 Hz.

In human biology, we see the principle of synchrony at work in both the locking menstrual cycles of women who live together and in the activity of pacemaker cells (the cells that control a person’s heart rate): When two pacemaker cells are in close proximity to each other, they quickly fall into rhythm with one another, building and releasing charges in unison.

{mosimage}By analyzing a film of children on a playground at lunchtime, a graduate student working under the supervision of anthropologist Edward T. Hall found another example of synchrony in the human realm: Kids all over the playground were unknowingly moving in rhythm with each other, as if dancing to the beat of a song. Similarly, by analyzing films of people in conversation, Boston University School of Medicine psychologist William S. Condon noticed that the listeners’ bodily gestures were in perfect synchrony with the speakers’ voices. Stranger still, when he hooked up pairs of people in conversation to separate electroencephalographs, he found that the brainwaves of people engaged in “good” conversation oscillated “in harmony” with each other. Similar experiments have revealed that the brainwaves of attendees of church sermons and students listening to lectures generally oscillated in synch with those of the speaker, and that only when this kind of brainwave entrainment occurred was the class or church service perceived as “good.” Such data convinced Condon that human beings are not “isolated entities sending discrete messages to one another,” but rather are participants within “shared organizational forms."


The Mystical Perspective

“Since psyche and matter are contained in one and the same world, and moreover are in continuous contact with one another and ultimately rest on irreprehensible, transcendental factors, it is not only possible but fairly probable, even, that psyche and matter are two different aspects of one and the same thing. The synchronicity phenomena point, it seems to me, in this direction, for they show that the nonpsychic can behave like the psychic, and vice versa, without there being any causal connection between them.”

- Carl Jung, “On the Nature of the Psyche”


“Synchronicity is the love underlying the happenings of the time. Love brings everything together. Now, there is a resonating field. There is a field that tries for everything to come together, because we live in this unified field, and love is always trying to pull us into being unified. As we become more and more conscious, we enter that unified field of love, and then we have synchronistic experiences. Love is not a feeling—it’s pure reason. As we interact with each other, as we become more and more aware, as we have our desires placed out there, everything on the planet tries to bring it forth.”

- Risa D’Angeles, founder and director of the Esoteric & Astrological Studies & Research Institute


“I have spent much of my adult life trying to understand these events, and although I believe their true origin is beyond human comprehension, it has much to do with the spiritual concept that time is an illusion, and events can be orchestrated by entities in spirit form (including our higher selves) which are designed to keep us on our true path.”

-Mystic Life, editor of SynchronicityTimes.com


“Synchronicity, along with déjà vu, is a phenomenon that people too easily take for granted. People regularly toss off this everyday minor miracle with a ‘Wow! What a weird coincidence,’ not really thinking about it again. We should pay closer attention in these moments, ‘smell the rose of synchronicity,’ if you will, as there is probably something important happening if we look a little closer. I think of synchronicity as experiential proof of the interconnectedness of all things and the existence of a higher power. I think that if one could somehow empirically measure the countless individual synchronistic events across the globe at any given moment and simultaneously show all of them to the people of the world, it would go a long way to bind us together … or maybe that would just make us like The Borg … Either way, resistance is futile.”

-Chet (now married, a father of three, and working as a retail manager in Chicago)


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