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Research Suggests That Synchronicities Can Aid Psychotherapy

Therapist confidence about using synchronicity correlates with outcome.

Carl Jung described the paradigmatic synchronicity of the scarab-like beetle coming to his office window just as his patient was describing a dream of a scarab piece of jewelry during psychotherapy. Since then Jungians and others have recorded single cases. Recently investigators have carried out systematic research in the use of synchronicity during psychotherapy. Here’s hoping increasingly more researchers will study the ways in which synchronicity can become a useful psychotherapeutic technique as has Dr. Reefschläger in this report. (BDB)

Introduction

permission of Gunnar Immo Reefschläger

Gunnar Immo ReefschlägerSource: permission of Gunnar Immo Reefschläger

My name is Gunnar Immo Reefschläger, and I am a researcher from Frankfurt, Germany. I focus on modern concept research in the field of Analytical Psychology. Moreover, I am a clinical psychologist, a psychodynamic-oriented personal coach, and currently, a psychotherapeutically and psychoanalytical candidate at the Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis in Andernach, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Having finished and released my dissertation in German in 2018, Dr. Bernard Beitman kindly encouraged me to publish my findings for an English speaking readership.

In the following, I would like to give you a short and concise introduction to some of my general findings. After giving you an example of a typical participant’s report of synchronicity that happened in the context of psychotherapy, I will explain how I came across Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity, and how I conducted my study. Feel free to contact me through the links below if you have any thoughts. 

A case of synchronicity in psychotherapy

First, I would like to give you a typical example of synchronicity that can happen in the context of psychotherapy. The following excerpt is from a case that can be found in my doctoral dissertation(1):

”A 16-year-old patient who is suffering from anxiety goes on a final school trip to Berlin. It is her first trip away from home; she feels fearful and excited at the same time. However, her feelings transform into being overwhelmed. She tries to contact me spontaneously by mobile phone. I almost never switch on my mobile phone, but exactly at this moment it is on and I can give comfort to my patient. As a consequence of this moment, our therapeutic relationship deepened as I saw her in our next session.”

We need more modern concept research: The way to my study

I became fascinated by stories like these when a friend gave me a copy of Hopcke’s book There Are No Accidents (2) where I read the term synchronicity for the first time. During my studies of psychology at school, I noticed to my surprise that there was very little research about the concept of synchronicity because it was labeled as “psychological non-sense“ by my behavioristic-focused psychology department. In general, Analytical Psychology and its Freudian cousin Psychoanalysis were discarded as non-scientific. However, I had the feeling that it was an important and crucial concept of psychotherapy that just needed to be investigated more since strange coincidences connect people in a way that can be useful for both patient and therapist and their relationship. Consequently, I looked for a psychology professor who would be interested in supporting my idea to give the concept of synchronicity an empirical foundation so it would be acknowledged as a valid therapeutic concept.article continues after advertisement

A first step to an empirical foundation of synchronicity: The study

For my study, I collected a number of cases where synchronistic moments happened in the context of psychotherapy. This first step took me a time period of nine months. My cases consisted of 1) personal interviews I had with therapists, 2) synchronistic moments that happened during therapy which were documented by articles, books, and literature, and 3) questionnaires that Jungian therapists could use as an alternative to personal interviews.

To get a high number of personal interviews, I reached out to all Jungian training institutes that were listed on the website of the International Association for Analytical Psychology (3) asking them if they would be willing to endorse my study and send a study invitation via e-mail to their members. Institutes in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland received a German version of my study invitation, all other institutes an English version. In addition to that, I sent out study invitation flyers to all Jungian institutes in Germany (Berlin, Stuttgart, Munich) via mail. Next, I also posted my study invitation online on several forums, groups on Facebook. For people who reacted to my invitation over Facebook, I asked them to give me some kind of proof that they had been working as a therapist. (e.g scan of their license to practice).

For therapists who responded to my study invitations, I sent an informed consent form that needed to be filled out by both therapist and patient allowing me to use the provided material. I conducted the actual interviews face-to-face, via telephone, or via Skype. For therapists who could or would not telephone, meet me personally, nor Skype, I offered to send my interview questions via email, so that they could answer them in a written form. In the end, I conducted 12 interviews personally and I received 12 email responses, in which therapists answered my interview questions in a written form.

Next, for conducting interviews, I searched for already documented synchronicities that happened during psychotherapy. I used different keywords and keyword combinations (e. g. “synchronicity”, “synchronicity and psychotherapy”, “synchronistic”) on Google and Google Scholar to find cases that were documented. Books, dissertations, and articles that seemed to be possibly relevant for my interest, I read in-depth (5; 6). The length of an actual narrative was not important, however, I dismissed narratives that were too short (e. g. when it only consisted of one sentence). In the end, I found 22 narratives of synchronicities that happened in the context of psychotherapy.

Results

After nine months of collecting data, I had a total number of 46 cases/reports of synchronicities that happened in psychotherapy. Next, I looked at how these cases were presented and/or written. I analyzed the cases using several questions including: “Did the synchronicity include a dream, premonition, or a concrete statement/behavior?“ Or “Did the synchronicity happen over a physical distance or in a physical closeness?“ In this way, I had a total of 22 questions I asked the therapists I interviewed, or I answered them myself regarding the already documented cases. Most of my questions came from publications of my doctoral advisor Christian Roesler (7). Afterward, I tried to find out if there are any tendencies of all cases in response to my questions.

Here are some results I found: There were more synchronicities reported/documented 1) that included pre-monition than dreams 2) that happened in a physical distance, e. g. over several kilometers, rather than a physical closeness, e.g. over some meters 3) that happened not simultaneously, e.g. a person dreaming synchronistically of events occurring the next day, than simultaneously, e.g. a person knowing synchronistically what another person does at the same time. I also tried to look at several possible relations between my questions through statistical methods. My results show, for example, that there is a relation between a concrete, self-assured reaction of the therapist regarding an occurred synchronistic moment and a positive consequence for the therapeutic relationship. Moreover, the more secure, aware, and specific a therapist reacts to a synchronistic moment in the context of psychotherapy, the more likely it has a positive impact on the therapeutic relationship and the therapy process itself.

What needs to happen: More therapists need to know the concept of synchronicity

In conclusion, one can say that paying attention to synchronistic moments in therapies can be a beneficial factor for therapy if the therapist is trained and self-assured in the topic of synchronicity. Consequently, it would be advisable if the topic of synchronicity is being taught more in therapy training institutes, so that future therapists can recognize synchronicities better and see them as a potential source for additional therapeutic interventions, that can support the patient by experiencing even more meaning in his or her life.

Reference

1)Excerpt of case 23 of Reefschläger, G. (2018). Synchronizität in der Psychotherapie; Eine quantitativ-qualitative Untersuchung der strukturellen Beschaffenheit synchronistischer Phänomene im psychotherapeutischen Prozess. [Dissertation]. Frankfurt/Oder: Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt.

2) Hopcke, R. H. (1998). There are no accidents: Synchronicity and the stories of our lives. Riverhead Books (Hardcover).

3)International Association for Analytical Psychology – IAAP. (2020, November 21). https://iaap.org

4) Hill, J. (2011). Synchronicity and grief: The phenomenology of meaningful coincidence as it arises during bereavement. [Dissertation]. Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.

5)Brandon, N. (2015). Synchronicity: A phenomenological study of Jungian analysts’ lived experience of meaningful coincidence in the context of psychotherapy. [Dissertation]. California Institute of Integral Studies.

6)Roesler, C. (Ed.). (2018). Research in analytical psychology: empirical research. Milton Park, Abingdon: Routledge 

How to Use Meaningful Coincidences

We know they happen. The data are very clear. Coincidences appear in the lives of most people, some more frequently than others. We can describe them in terms of mind and thing. We can list their archetypal themes. How can they be used? What is their cash value?

General Uses of Meaningful Coincidences

Encourage us to become curious about them

We come to the awareness of coincidences in a variety of ways. Some of us seem to be born with the predisposition to be curious about them. Sometimes a major coincidence dramatically draws our attention to them as happened to Brendan. Others become overwhelmed by a flood of coincidences, demanding personal investigation.

However one comes to acknowledge their existence, curiosity often follows.

Confirm cherished beliefs (The confirmation bias)

If you want to believe that God makes your coincidence happen, then a startling or useful coincidence can confirm that belief. If you want to believe that the universe is random, coincidences can also confirm that belief. If you believe, as I do, that each of us contributes to the creation of many coincidences, then that belief can also be confirmed.

Stimulate interest in how the world works

If what you are thinking is surprisingly matched by an event in your environment, how does that happen? Perhaps our minds minds more connected to the material world than science currently tells us. Are some coincidences windows into a hidden reality? Do we have more psychic powers than we believe we have? Or perhaps they are teaching us about the way statistics can inform our understanding of low probability experiences.

Activate and exercise our observing selves

Our observing self is that part of our awareness that monitors our mental activity. By coming to recognize that some of our mental events are surprisingly matched by environmental events, we activate our ability to observe our inner workings. We then exercise our ability to connect our mind’s events with the events in our surroundings. The more coincidences we experience, the more fluidly our observing selves finds parallels between our thoughts and our surroundings.

Encourage us to think about probabilities

A common response to a weird coincidence is: What are the odds of that happening? Try to answer that question by estimating the probability of each part of the coincidence. For more details about estimating probabilities, please see this previous post.

Great stories to tell!

Tell some friends a coincidence story. You may trigger a very interesting discussion. You are also likely to hear stories from them. Maybe you will help each other to figure them out.

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Guiding Principles for Using Coincidences

Be selective about which coincidences to examine

The frequency of coincidences varies. For some of us, coincidences rarely appear. For those who regularly experience them, whom I call coinciders, some periods can be full of them. Other periods have very few. When there are lots of them, enjoy the possibility of being in the flow. That may be enough of an examination. When you do examine them look at the low probability ones first, especially those that trigger intense feelings in you. Be careful about over-examining befuddling coincidences. If you become overwhelmed by their frequency, seek coincidence counseling.

It’s your choice about how to use them

Meaningful coincidences offer us possibilities, not certainty. They are best thought of as sign posts rather than directives. We are probably not being imposed upon by some external force although some of us do think of them this way.

Some offer a clear path forward that seems very reasonable to take. Others present confusing ambiguity. For the ambiguous ones, select the option which best suits your needs in both the short and long terms. Some are tempting but not the right thing for us.That means refusing to follow the implied suggestion.

Interpreting coincidences

The use of some coincidences may be obvious. Others may be not so clear. Take some time, let the meaning percolate through your mental-emotional system. Write them down. You may see a pattern emerge as can happen with dreams. As you become more tuned to coincidences, you will see that we also live in a symbolic world, a real life dream world. Events may become symbols as in novels and plays. Some of us learned this in childhood from a nursery rhyme:

“Row, row row your boat, gently down the stream.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”

An insightful interpretation of this rhyme can be found here.

Specific Uses of Certain Coincidences

Provide comfort and support

The most common use of coincidence, especially in times of distress, is to provide comfort and support. In this video Kathryn describes how connections with strangers and a Santa Fe jeweler helped to her feel that she was not alone and that everything would be alright. Pay attention to the feeling she had in response to the coincidence. Jung labelled it “numinous”. That feeling marks the coincidence to be significant.

Stimulate good feelings

Some coincidences are fun or enjoyable or aesthetically pleasing. Like fine entertainment and fine art, they help us feel good, that everything is right in the world. For example, a 24 year old woman, upon experiencing an amazing coincidence, told me, “It was like when your mom pulls the sheet over you, and it settles on you, and you feel you are in the right place.” p.221

Lock and key–providing just what we need

There it is, just what you are looking for or even something better. You recognize the fit between idea and object/person/event immediately or shortly thereafter. No ambiguity. A missing object mysteriously shows up, or a long lost relative suddenly appears or just the idea you needed for work or creativity saunters out in front of you. Your task is to grasp it or let it go.

Affirming love and connection

We seek connections with other. These bonds can be and are often supported by meaningful coincidences. In romantic love coincidences can be especially impactful which presents the lover with a two-sided coin. We have a tendency to believe that highly unlikely coincidences are encouraging us to believe that this relationship will last forever. The feeling they generate in us seems to strengthen the sense that eternity stretches out in front of us. Often this is not the case as described in this post.

In family relationships and friendship coincidences can strengthen bonds through the remarkable empathy that emerges through simulpathity. We feel the pain, distress and other feelings of a loved one at a distance. Rob Hopke describes many love synchronicities in his new book as has SQuire Rushnell.

Expanding awareness of personal powers

Simulpathity and human GPS suggest we have psychic abilities that are not recognized by modern science. Scientists have well-reasoned arguments against these potentials as summarized by statistician David Hand.

When we experience them ourselves, we may begin to question scientific orthodoxy. Each of us needs to be scientific in our approach to recognizing and using these abilities.

Being scientific requires becoming our own personal scientist as described by Gary Schwartz. Test your hypothesis in the real world: Gather evidence. Probe and observe the responses. Be careful about bias toward one conclusion over another. Compare your experiences with others. Read accessible research on the subject.

You will not have the opportunity to perform a controlled, blind experiment since coincidence experiences are difficult to systematically organize for study. At least at this time. You are functioning in the real world not in controlled environment of the laboratory.

Psychiatrists must take research done under controlled conditions and apply the results to the messy data set that many patients present. As an example of the problem of becoming your own scientist and yet the need to do so click here. You finally have to decide what is real based upon limited information.

Helping others through coincidences

Some coincidences directly involve other people. We are the intermediaries. It is as if we are players in someone else’s dream. See, for example, the tennis basket post.

Using synchronicity awareness as a spiritual path

Meaningful coincidences demonstrate that our minds and our environments are connected. They suggest that our minds are part of a Greater Mind.

Spiritual practices like meditation, ecstatic dancing, and fasting encourage us to go deeply into our mind and body to become consciously present in the Here-and-Now.

As a spiritual practice, synchronicity awareness takes a complementary position. On this path you look outward as well as inward.You discover that external events converging together in each moment are related to each other. By immersing yourself in awareness of the interconnections at this moment, you can enter Here-and-now.

Misuse of Coincidences

The dark side of meaningful coincidences tends to get less attention than the sunny side.Here are several ways they can be misused and hurtful.

Self aggrandizement

Repeated coincidences can foster an expanding sense of one’s own specialness. “The Universe is speaking directly to me so often! I must be quite wonderful to be the center of all this attention.” Correction: You are not the only person experiencing many coincidences.

Good for me, not good for you

Some coincidences have both positive and negative results, depending on your role in them. For example, a husband and wife are looking for a new house. They find one that he likes and she does not but someone else has put in a bid. The couple then finds out that the bid has been withdrawn. The husband jumps at the opportunity. They argue. This becomes the last straw in their long standing problematic relationship and their marriage ends.

In another example, robbers try to cash the forged personal check of a bank teller to whom they brought the check to cash. 125

Charlatans use probabilities against us

Tricky people can use coincidences to pull cash out of unsuspecting people. They use simple probabilities to catch their victims.

One group, presenting themselves as Microsoft, randomly calls people offering to help with their computer problems as described in this post. (Microsoft does not call people.)

Another offers to sell a “highly effective” investment advising newsletter:

Mr. Lucky receives a financial newsletter, no strings attached, at no cost. He glances at it. The financial advisor announces that there will be a dramatic rise in a specific stock index. And there is. The next newsletter trumpets his clever methods for making this prediction. It also predicts another rise in the index. And there is. Once again, the advisor reviews his metrics for this conclusion but this time forecasts a decline in the index. And down it goes. After several more of these accurate predictions, the newsletter editor asks Mr. Lucky to send $2,000 for future newsletters with a fuller range of trends and a greater potential for earning high returns.

Let’s look behind the scenes. By purchasing a list of investors with a net worth of over one million dollars, the financial advisor selected 128,000, half of whom received a newsletter predicting a rise in the index while the other half received a newsletter predicting a decline. To those 64,000 who got the correct prediction, he sent another set of newsletters, half predicting gains and half predicting losses. The 32,000 who received the correct prediction were then sent another set of newsletters, again, half predicting gains and half predicting losses. Mr. Lucky was one of the 16,000 for whom the financial advisor was “correct” three times in a row. He decided to wait for one more prediction. Unfortunately for him, he received a prediction that was again correct, so he joined many of the 8,000 investors who sent the advisor $2,000 for this variation on a scammer-created coincidences.

Over-weighting Coincidences in decision making

Coincidences can inform decision making but cannot be relied upon as the sole reason for a decision. Here is an example:

Sitting her car with her boyfriend, a 19 yo female was weighing the marriage proposal of her boyfriend. As she pondered, grandmother’s favorite song came on the radio. She decided that was the sign she needed and said yes.

She provided no more information than this. It seemed that her uncertainty may have had good reasons.

and another:

During the interview with the dean of the another medical school, the professor, who was applying for Chair of a department there, glanced at a pile of books on the dean’s bookshelf and spotted a thin book with a maroon cover and gold edges. The professor blurted: “I know that book.” The dean said, “That’s my favorite book!” They enthusiastically discussed the Christian theology of that book for the rest of the interview. At the end, they prayed together and gave thanks for their meeting. Subsequently, the dean eliminated all other chair candidates, much to the frustration of the departmental faculty, and hired the professor. The faculty could not work with him. His wife couldn’t create a positive social network. So they returned to the town from which they had come, wishing that that he had never accepted the job.

Living Life with Meaningful Coincidences

Expecting coincidences during daily life can become a way of living. They ebb and flow like ocean tides, coming in and moving out. They are more likely during major life events like birth and death both symbolic and real. They are also more likely to occur in times of high emotion, and need. They may pop up humorously and suggestively and mysteriously. They indicate that we are embedded in webs of meaning. They show us that we have abilities we may not have yet recognized.

We still must live the life of the 5 senses–driving the car, caring for loved ones, earning money, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of our bodies. We can learn to hold the multiplicity of our human capacities in balance, allowing our minds to gracefully meet the expectations of current and future demands. Synchronicity awareness then becomes part of the fluid landscape of our minds.