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Is There a Deeper Explanation for Coincidence in Physics?

  1. Jul 21, 2011 #1
    Strange sequences of events seem to happen to all of us at one time or another, more specifically events that are highly unlikely to occur in the same sequence. For example, one thinks of a particular scene of a television show or movie; the individual turns on his or her TV moments later and watches that same scene.

    I found out recently that psychologist Carl Jung identified this phenomenon long ago and labeled it "synchronicity." I realize this is not a psychology forum, and I don't intend to post this question in a context of psychology. The only physics-related results involving synchronicity I could find involve astrology and religion. I am looking for a more scientific approach.

    Is there an explanation for this in physics? Has there ever been any more recent research on the matter? What evidence is there to support your answer?

    Thank you for your time.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 21, 2011 #2


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    There are lots of things that explain apparent coincidences. Many of them have to do with selection bias - the tendency to notice something more once it's been brought to your attention.

    But most coincidences, by the definition of coincidence, do not need explaining. They are coincidences.

    Bob is returning home from the West Coast while Bill is heading to the West Coast for vacation along the TransCanada highway. What a coincidence that they ran into each other!

    No, it is actually inevitable that their paths cross.

    Any common or repeating event is bound to overlap antoher common repeating event. It's virtually inevitable.
  4. Jul 21, 2011 #3


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    its data mining - out of the huge number of events in our lives its inevitable that there will be a few seemingly improbable coincidences

    sort of a vastly expanded version of this
  5. Jul 21, 2011 #4
    Coincidences like the example you gave I have always attributed to psychology; to explain using a similar example to yours, if you thought of a movie scene and then were not watching that same scene later, you would not notice the "coincidence" and so would not consider it strange. In fact you'd probably just forget about it. And maybe every so often it won't be a pure coincidence, using the same example again you may imagine the film scene, and then on some subconscious level deliberately try to find that film on TV. Or something. Anyway, in my opinion I don't think it's a question for physics really.
  6. Jul 21, 2011 #5
    The suggestions offered so far are precisely what I thought at first. But some of these instances can be very specific and fairly common (I admittedly attribute their being common as arbitrary; it's "common" because we pay more attention after it happens once or multiple times). A more personal and specific example would be when I was playing a game, in which I found a location called "Dragon's Den." I got bored with the game after finding it, set it aside, scrolled through the channels on the television, and saw a show called "Dragon's Den." Along with a series of other very unlikely events that have happened recently, I feel it begs the question of whether or not there are coincidental events so precise that there is an empirical explanation for them.
  7. Jul 21, 2011 #6
    Occasionally, I will think of someone and moments later they will call me on the telephone. Much more often, I will think of someone and nothing happens.
  8. Jul 21, 2011 #7
    Is this how gambling addicts are made?
  9. Jul 21, 2011 #8

    jim hardy

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    I assume you read Jung's book on synchronicity.

    Einstein's dad ran an electromagnet factory where Albert played as a child. So he was imprinted at early age with electromagnetic phenomena. I believe he imprinted 20th century science to point we dismiss anything not of electromagnetic nature.

    try a google search on terms: Jung Pauli "Princeton Letters"
    Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung exchanged a lot of ideas.

    See if you can find the yahoo group "Neutron Repulsion". There are recent posts along the lines you are pondering.

    You might enjoy Robert Jastrow's little book "God and the Astronomers".

    Who knows - electricity used to be a parlor game just like Ouija board.

    Do you perjhaps have a friend who seems always to call on the phone the instant you walk in the door? As if they knew?

    may the Force be with you --

    old jim
  10. Jul 21, 2011 #9


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    I once read an interesting article that argued, quite convincingly (and I believe correctly), that what would be STAGGERINGLY weird would be if we did NOT experience odd coincidences from time to time.
  11. Jul 21, 2011 #10


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    A perfect example.

    How many other events happened in that game that never correlated with something later on? Dozens? Hundreds?

    Yet, one event overlaps another (at some arbitrarily later time) and it's a synchronicity that needs explaining? Why?

    Frankly, it would be surprising if an event in a sea of hundreds of events (the game) did not overlap at least once with one event in another sea of hundreds of events (TV). Especially if you give it enough time.
  12. Jul 21, 2011 #11
    it's no coincidence. payoff size, frequency, distribution, etc. are all analyzed scientifically to maximize gambling behavior.

    doesn't help to be born with the wrong brain chemistry, either.
  13. Jul 22, 2011 #12
    I've thought this all along. There have been some interesting circumstances in my life that have been messing with my head, I suppose. Thank you all for your input. Any extra input from here on is welcome as well.
  14. Jul 22, 2011 #13
    Well, Inquirer1, I’m not sure that I really have anything to add to what has already been said, but at you’re specific invitation, I’ll throw my two penn’orth in. I agree with what has been said – sometimes in life, the most outrageous coincidences really are just that and there is no need to lose any sleep over them. It is perhaps just the same as others have already said, but there is a phenomenon that psychologists call ‘attachment’. If there is something that is much in your mind then you may well witness a completely unrelated event and read into it a connection with whatever is bothering you that isn’t really warranted.

    But the possibly different perspective that I thought worth mentioning is that sometimes you need to be careful about dismissing as coincidence something that really is not coincidence at all. That is not to suggest that there is any supernatural or even some deeper physical explanation, but to suggest that sometimes there may be a perfectly obvious, rational causal link. And again, it is not my intention to encourage paranoia. But sometimes there is a need to ask yourself – was that really coincidental or is there something more to it?
  15. Jul 22, 2011 #14


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    To quote Tim Minchin: things with a one in a hundred million chance happen....all the f***ing time. As has been pointed out coincidence are always different; perhaps one time in a month you will think of someone just as they ring, one time a month you will be talking about your favourite dinner only to get home and find it waiting, one time a month you think you see someone but it's not them only to bump into them later etc etc etc. It's all conformational bias.
  16. Jul 22, 2011 #15
    From the thread title I thought this thread was going to be about the strange fact that very frequently two separate physicists have made the same important discovery, at around the same time, independently of each other.
  17. Jul 22, 2011 #16
    Coincidence and synchronicity are metaphysical terms and physics doesn't address metaphysical issues. Its along the lines of asking if physics or your auto mechanic have anything to say about God. Yeah, I'm sure you can find some auto mechanic somewhere willing to argue the V8 engine proves the existence of God, but most will just look at you like you've lost your mind.
  18. Jul 22, 2011 #17

    That's not really that surprising. Discoveries aren't made in a vacuum. Advances come when the science has gotten to a point that the intellectual tools to make such advances are possible. Also, multiple people will often be working on the same unresolved problems.
  19. Jul 22, 2011 #18
    Think of all of the coincidences that COULD happen, but don't. I think you'll find that they VASTLY outnumber the ones that actually do. As a wild guess, I'd estimate it's on the order of 1 coincidence occured for every million coincidences that COULD have happened.
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