What is Synchronicity?

Many of us have encountered the term synchronicity at some point in our lives and struggled with understanding what it means. It's a buzz word that shows up in movies, books, and spiritual teachings, where it is vaguely defined as a term for "unexplained coincidences" that are somehow caused by our thoughts and feelings. That's a not a bad definition, but it's pretty basic, and tends to encourage folks to dismiss the whole thing because it conjures up images of New Agers wearing flowy scarves, gazing into crystal balls to find the answers to the universe. And while there are psychic/spiritual implications inherit in the concept of synchronicity, that's just a side story to what Carl Jung discovered and defined.

Jung defined synchronicity circa December, 1929, as "an acausal connecting principle." All well and good, but what on earth does it mean? If we are causing synchronicitous events with our thoughts and feelings, how can they be acausal? What does "acausal" even mean?

Jung wasn't known for his clear, accessible style of writing. Indeed, one can get a headache pretty quickly wading through his stream-of-consciousness ramblings that are peppered with seven-syllable words and unexplained references. In all fairness, he wasn't writing for the general public, but rather for himself, and for his colleagues, who likely understood what he meant by things like "Heidegger's psychic crankiness" without having to spend a lot of time on Google. But when it came to labeling and defining his own discoveries, Jung was a stickler for getting things just right, and "acausal connecting principle" seems totally legit once you understand what he was thinking.

The example that Jung liked to use to describe synchronicity came from an actual experience with one of his patients during a session in his consulting room in Zurich. The woman patient was describing a dream she'd had in which she'd been given a necklace with a golden scarab beetle on it, when suddenly there came a sound at the window. Jung went to investigate and found a rare Egyptian scarab beetle on the window sill, which he promptly gave to his patient. This particular beetle had only ever been seen in Egypt, and was a rare find even there, so Jung considered it proof of his theory of synchronicity. The patient agreed, and this session led to a breakthrough of her rational defenses that had been getting in the way of their progress.

So her dreaming about the beetle and talking about the beetle caused this beetle to suddenly appear? Yes! And no.

The concept of causality, central to our understanding of Physics, essentially states that everything in our universe moves according to cause and effect. Thing A occurs (the cause), followed by Things B (the effect). The cause always precedes the effect, and the effect always happens after the cause. They are intertwined with each other, dependent on each other, and always occur at different times on the timeline, always in the same order. When Jung calls synchronicity "acausal," he is saying that the "cause and effect" laws of Physics do not apply. In fact, Jung defined synchronicity as "things happening at the same moment as an expression of the same time content.”

For example, one day I was thinking about my dog who had died about a year before, and my four-year-old daughter said the dog's name out loud. We experienced thoughts with the same content, at the same time. My thinking about my dog might have caused the synchronicity, but the connection with my daughter was acausal. There was nothing that happened in the physical world to make her think of our dog. There was an acausal connecting principle at play — synchronity.

It wasn't until the early 20th century that Quantum Physics got going, and recognized that some things might be acausal. Jung was probably aware of some of its theories, and they might have played into his ultimate understanding of synchronicity. In fact, it seems likely that he was aware, given that he kept up an ongoing correspondence with Nobel Laureate physicist Wolfgang Pauli at the time. Today, we understand that some things happen that are unpredictable, and for which there doesn't seem to be any cause. One example is Radioactive Decay, in which there is no cause for a radioactive atom to split apart and begin the decay process, no common position in which a particle is detected, no standard momentum or direction of spin that can be predicted. The process is acausal.

Some scientists, including Einstein, argue that there is no such thing as acausality in Physics, that there is always a cause, we just might not know enough to understand it. That could well be - I wouldn't deign to guess. Maybe there are invisible, physical triggers that cause synchronistic events, but for the moment, it does appear that internal events can initiate changes in the physical world during synchronicity, whether that's a rare scarab beetle or a daughter parroting an unexpressed thought out loud.

Jung was clearly ahead of his time when he defined synchronicity, whatever his level of understanding of the early ideas of acausality in Quantum Physics. Acausality must have been very attractive to Jung, given his fascination with the Collective Unconscious and his therapeutic practice of Active Imagination.

The other important component of synchronicity is that the acausal connection must be meaningful. There must be some intensity of meaning for the thought/feeling to poke through the collective unconscious and appear in the physical world, or in someone else's conscious mind. This stress on meaning was another deviation from standard scientific thought during Jung's time, which stated categorically that values cannot be derived from facts. Jung postulated that meaning is an intrinsic property of reality, and should be integrated into our scientific understanding of the world. He claimed that the meaningfulness of a synchroncity is objective, and not a byproduct of an individual psyche. That synchronicitous events have collective meaning to humanity, or to existence.

There are many different ways to look at what Jung means by "meaning," and it's all rather tricky because meaning is often associated with feeling, which is experienced differently and therefore difficult to define and measure. And although Jung considered a few different scenarios (such as anything to do with the Archetypes) as powerful enough to cause synchronicity, the most common by far seems to those associated with a strong emotional charge, or "numinosity." A high level of emotional feeling can grant enough global, objective importance and meaning to an event that it instigates an acausal connection. We can't know exactly what will cause that connection — it is acausal — but we know that there must be an intensity of meaning for synchronicity to occur.

In the scarab beetle story that Jung liked to use as a good example of synchronicity, the synchronicitous event occured as a means of facilitating his patient's progress toward wellness. She was blocked, and becoming unblocked was important enough to instigate the synchronicity. There's no way of knowing how many people cared deeply about this woman or knew of her problems, but being well, living with peace and wellness, is a global concern to humankind. There was a high level of meaning associated with the event.

So when you run into your friend at the store, that is most likely not synchronicity - that's coincidence. When you wake in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, and receive a phone call that someone you love has been in an accident, that is synchronicity, caused by the feeling of fear or dread from the person who called you. That feeling is not globally felt by all humans, rather the feeling itself is understood by all humans as meaningful and important. The synchronicity is caused by the numinosity of feeling, but the connection itself is acausal - nothing in your physical surroundings caused you to wake up in the middle of the night.

Hope that makes sense!