The history of coincidence studies can be told through the stories of the four people who coined words for the types of coincidences they noticed in their lives. The most famous is Carl Jung and synchronicity, but he was not the first.
Serendipity: Horace Walpole (1717-1797)
Horace Walpole, a member of the British House of Commons in the 18th century, recognized in himself a talent for finding what he needed just when he needed it. A gift in the form of a portrait of a Grand Duchess whom Walpole had long admired arrived from his distant cousin in Florence, Italy. Walpole needed a coat of arms to decorate the new picture frame and just happened to find it an old book. On January 28, 1754, Walpole, thrilled with this coincidence, wrote to his cousin Horace, giving a name to his ability to find things unexpectedly—serendipity.
He got the name from a fairy tale called “The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of Sarendip.” Sarendip (or Serendib) is an ancient name for the island nation Sri Lanka off India’s southern coast. The king of the fable recognized that education requires more than learning from books, so he sent his sons out of the country to broaden their experience. Throughout the story, the clever princes carefully observed their surroundings, and then used their observations in ways that saved them from danger and death.
For Walpole, serendipity meant finding something by informed observation (sagacity as he called it) and by accident. The main ingredients of serendipity include luck, chance, active searching, and informed observation.
Seriality: Paul Kammerer (1880-1926)
Biologist Paul Kammerer spent hours sitting on benches in various public parks in Vienna noting repetitions among the people who passed by. He classified them by sex, age, dress, whether they carried umbrellas or parcels, and by many other details. He did the same during the long train rides from his home to his office in Vienna. Kammerer was not particularly interested in meaning—only repeated sequences of numbers, names, words, and letters. Two examples can illustrate his thinking: His wife was in a waiting room reading about a painter named Schwalbach when a patient named Mrs. Schwalbach was called into the consultation room. A second example involved his friend Prince Rohan. On the train his wife was reading a novel with a character “Mrs. Rohan.” She then saw a man get on the train who looked like Prince Rohan. Later that night the Prince himself unexpectedly dropped by their house for a visit.
He defined “seriality” as “a recurrence of the same or similar things or events in time and space” which, “are not connected by the same acting cause.” To him these repetitions were simply natural phenomena.
Kammerer thought these similarities were part of the structure of natural law, and in his 1919 book Das Gesetz Der Serie outlined what he thought these laws to be along with a broad set of classifications of their types and qualities.
Synchronicity: Carl Jung (1875-1961)
Carl Jung grew up in Swiss family that, on his mother’s side, embraced the paranormal. His personal experiences included apparitions (the disembodied figure of another person) and poltergeists (troublesome ghosts), spiritualistic communications (communication with people after their deaths), and materializations (creation of matter from unknown sources). His experiences also included telepathic, clairvoyant, and precognitive dreams, prophetic visions, psychokinetic events, and out-of-body and near-death experiences.
He invented the word synchronicity from the Greek syn—with, together—and chronos—time. Synchronicity means moving-together-in-time. Its fundamental characteristic is the surprise that occurs when a thought in the mind is mirrored by an external event to which it has no apparent causal connection. He also used the word synchronicity to refer to “an acausal connecting principle” that he placed on equal status with causation.
He included many strange events under the synchronicity umbrella including telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance, along with poltergeists, apparitions, divination (e.g. the I Ching), and astrology. The definition of synchronicity has been stretched in many different directions.
Simulpathity: Bernard Beitman (1942–) Founder of Coincidence Studies
The term “simulpathity” defines a specific subclass of meaningful coincidences: the simultaneous experience at a distance by one person of another person’s distress. The experience occurs without the two people being together in the same place and sometimes without conscious awareness of its source. One person is in pain and another person feels distress for no apparent reason. Sometimes the distress is very similar to the other person’s pain. Often, the two people share a strong emotional bond. The largest number of simulpathity reports comes from twins, although reports involving mothers and their children are also prominent.
Simulpathity suggests that the individuals are more closely bonded than current scientific thought holds possible.
Simulpathity — from the Latin simul (simultaneous) and the Greek pathos (suffering) — differs from “sympathy.” The sympathetic person is aware of the suffering of the other but does not usually feel it. In the experience of simulpathity, one person suffers along with the other person and can experiences some form of that suffering. Only later is the simultaneity of the distress recognized, although some twins know just why they are feeling pain—the other twin is now feeling it.