Towards a Science of Synchronicities: 
Their Meaning and Therapeutic Implications


Gibbs A. Williams Ph.D.

Gwilliamsny11@aol.com



 

In this paper I examine the critically important role that meaning plays in the formulation of alternative theories of synchronicity and their implications for treatment. I first define what synchronicities are and their growing importance as significant events to be identified, explored, and worked through in working with synchronicity prone patients. Next I identify and outline Jung’s formulation of his radical anti scientific transpersonal theory of synchronicities with particular attention focused on understanding his concept of the “equivalence of meaning.” This is followed by listing questions raised, the chief one being: what is the meaning of meaning and its relationship to causality. This exploration leads to the finding that alternative perspectives concerning the nature of meaning associated with the production of synchronicities result in the formulation of alternative theories of synchronicities and redefinitions of associated core concepts. Specifically, alternative understandings of the meaning of meaning leads either to a half psychodynamic and half mystical magical (transpersonal) theory of synchronicities (i.e Jung and his followers) or to a totally naturalistic psychodynamic theory of synchronicities (i.e. Faber and or Williams.) Meanings will alternatively be viewed as absolute, transcendent, passively ‘channeled’ bypassing interpretation, or as relative, self generated ‘messages’ via an active process of meaning making utilizing a person’s idiosyncratic creative process. Lastly, implications for working with synchronistic material will be discussed.



Overview:

For the last 50 years Jung (1875-1961) (who coined the term synchronicities and was preoccupied the rest of his life by this material) and his followers have been the de facto authorities with respect to meaningful coincidences. Jung’s synchronicity theory is a blend of half psychodynamic theory and half mystical/magical transpersonal theory. A paucity of criticism of the Jungian synchronicity theory has focused on his admittedly anti - scientific stance. Only recently has there been a growing interest by scholars, and academicians to study synchronicities scientifically. Representative of these efforts is the Noor Foundation conference at the Harvard Club at NYC “A Scientific Look at Synchronicities: The Search for Meaning in Coincidences” on April, 2010 and a pending Yale University symposium “The Synchro Project: Toward a Methodology for the Study of SYNCHRONICITY” October 15th -17th.

Jung and his adherents have dominated the synchronicity scene for the last fifty four years. During this time period I am aware of only a very few challenges to Jung’s mystical/magical conceptualization of meaning which is the core concept underlying his theory of synchronicities including my own initial de facto agreement with him. However in the course of the forty five years that I have been investigating the perplexities of meaningful coincidences (synchronicities) I discovered that the Jungian understanding of meaning raises more unanswered questions than provides definitive answers.

Perhaps the most important question raised is precisely is meant by the meaning of meaning. My research (Williams, 2010) indicates that alternative assumptions about the nature of reality (ontology) and the nature of knowledge and its acquisition (epistemology) generate alternative theories of synchronicities. In turn, alternative theories of synchronicity lead to significantly different conceptualizations of meaning which have important implications in working with synchronicity prone patients. (Williams, Demystifying Meaningful Coincidences, p.98)

Thus due to my ‘conversion’ I am aware of an obligation to present my findings in the hope that analysts and other clinicians are made aware that there now exists a viable alternative naturalistic theory that might be brought to bear in choosing how to most effectively treat this material in therapeutic sessions with synchronicity prone patients.

An Increasing Interest in Synchronicities from Both Patients and Therapists

Fifty years ago when Jung became interested in treating the synchronicities of his patients he hesitated in making his observations public. Jung (1952) said:

As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist I have often come up against the phenomena in question and could convince myself how much these inner experiences meant to my patients. In most cases they were things which people do not talk about for fear of exposing themselves to thoughtless ridicule. I was amazed to see how many peoplehave had experiences of this kind and how carefully the secret was guarded. (Jung, 1952b, par. 816)


It is noteworthy that currently there appears to be an explosion of interest in working with patients’ synchronicities as viable therapeutic material. A large degree of credit for this significant change in attitude is no doubt due to Jung for his pioneering open mindedness in recognizing the importance of these remarkable events in man’s continuing attempts to make meaningful connections with himself and the object world.

Perhaps too because this material is typically experienced as profoundly emotional and intellectually meaningful, yet, at the same time, apparently intellectually inexplicable it therefore presents a challenge to researchers to attempt to investigate synchronicities scientifically. The apparent inexplicability of these uncanny events– meets the requirements for synchronicities to be classified as “scientific anomalies” set forth by Kuhn. Kuhn (1996 ) states: “Discovery commences with the awareness of anomalies, that is, with the recognition that nature has somehow violated the paradigm – induced expectations that govern normal science.” (Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 52)

Whatever else synchronicities do, they certainly appear to violate the paradigmatic expectations of classical psychoanalytic theory i.e. psychic determinism first formulated by Freud. Thus their perplexities offer an important challenge to those interested in understanding these phenomena scientifically.

Two Examples of Synchronicities Experienced in Therapy Sessions

A patient of mine, D began his therapy session with his increasing awareness as to how obsessed he has been with thoughts, and fantasies concerning his almost divorced wife starting from the first moment he saw her five years ago. He commented that while he is better he would have thought that 10 months would have been more than enough to shake this obsession. It was in this context that he related the following coincidence.

Preceding coming to his therapy session, he was unclear as to what to do with his free time. Knowing specifically what he wants and what is good for him has been a major problem all of his life. On this occasion, he uncharacteristically asked himself the question as to what he wanted. He gave himself two alternatives. One was to go to an area where he knew his wife might be, or to go to the arts library to see a video of a play he was hired to act in. He decided that it would be infinitely more constructive for him to see the video than to likely torture himself with possibly seeing his rejecting wife. He felt pleased that he was able to make a clear choice as to which want would be best for him.

Riding up the elevator in my office building a stranger blurted out: “It’s nice to know what you want.” My patient was startled as he felt the stranger was reading his mind. He responded that it indeed was nice to know what you really wanted.

He said to me that in the past (a few months ago) he would have felt that all he wanted was to regain his wife’s favor. He now felt that he had choices in place of compulsions, impulsions, and, or states of emptiness. Noteworthy is the fact that his progressive shift of attitude in self confidence became a permanent change in his behavior.

The next example of a synchronicity arising in the therapy office is that of Jung’s seminal ‘Scarab’ coincidence. Jung observed that in his psychoanalytic practice he began noting that many of his patients spontaneously described coincidences which they found to be highly meaningful. Jung (1925?) was particularly impressed by a shared experience of a meaningful coincidence commonly referred to as the “scarab” synchronicity.


Jung’s Seminal “Scarab” Synchronicity

Jung (1925?) states:

A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given

a golden scarab. While she was telling me his dream I sat with my back to the closed

window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw

a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from outside. I opened the window and

caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to the golden scarab

that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetoaia urata)

which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this A

young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a

golden scarab. While she was telling me his dream I sat with my back to the closed window.

Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying

insect knocking against the window-pane from outside. I opened the window and caught the

creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to the golden scarab that one finds

in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rosechafer (Cetoaia urata) which contrary

to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular

moment. (Jung, 1961, “Synchronicity: An ACausal Connecting Principle, in Jung and Pauli,

Interpretation of Nature, 143) [It is noted that the exact date of the “Scarab” synchronicity is

unclear – the best guess is 1925).


Jung’s Reaction:

Whereas the scarab coincidence had an apparent transforming affect on his patient “facilitating significant change” it had an undeniably profound effect on Jung as well, as he committed much of the rest of his life attempting to understand the nature, implications, and uses of synchronistic events. (Jung, “On Synchronicity,” 525-26)

Theoretical Challenges

What makes both of these synchronicities particularly intriguing is their capacity to stir up profound emotions such as awe and the uncanny. Additionally they present to the therapist and scientific researcher a complicated intellectual challenge because they seem to defy conventional scientific (cause and effect) explanation. In Jung’s case, the scarab synchronicity was as much his as it was his patients. Jung (1925?) was so profoundly impacted by his shared experience with his patient that he stated: “never before nor since has he ever experienced an event quite like that one was.” (Jung, On Synchronicity, 525-6)

The Phenomenology of Synchronicities

Williams (2010 states that meaningful coincidences (synchronicities) are typically experienced as extraordinary events in the flow of time, contrasted with the more ordinary occurrences of mundane daily living. Such were the responses of the patients associated with the examples above. It is no wonder that many experiencers commonly refer to them as small miracles, God’s gift to human beings, coded messages from a transcendent realm of divinity and the likes. (Williams, 2010, 1)

Further, as seen in the examples above, synchronicities are associated with significant psychological change – transformation, transcendence and expansion of consciousness - seeming to occur in sudden, unexpected, dramatically profound ways. In this connection they are focused on the whole self both in terms of being and becoming. They are also associated with primary motivation: trust, hope, faith, intentionality, and persistence (the components of a grounded spirituality).

Jung’s Definition of a Synchronicity

Jung (1955) defined a synchronicity (meaningful coincidence) as “the simultaneous occurrence of two meaningfully but not causally connected events [wherein] an unexpected (mental) content (A) which directly or indirectly connected with some objective external event (A’) coincides with the ordinary psychic state.” (Jung, “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle,” 36)

Implications of Jung’s Synchronicity Theory

Synchronicity defined as an uncaused but meaningful coincidence between an internal psychological state and an external physical event if taken seriously eliminates conventional causality as an adequate explanation. Jung replaces a linking principle of causality with an a- causal linking principle of synchronicity. Thus A and A ‘are linked together not by causality but by an “equivalence of meaning” and simultaneity.

With the aim of highlighting both the momentous importance and simplicity of Jung’s analysis of synchronicities the following graph of the structure of a synchronicity might be helpful. Whereas all synchronicities differ with respect to content, they all share a common structure.

The Structure of a Synchronicity

A ………………………………………. A’

Subjective experienced Linking Principle Objective Event

(causes/ or a causal?)

The structure of any synchronicity consists of three component parts: A (a subjective psychological experience); A ‘an objective external events parallel in meaning to A; and some principle functioning as a linking principle connecting A and A’. Eliminating causality Jung posits this linking principle as an a-casual principle also known as the principle of synchronicity.



Jung’s Radical and Provocative Anti Scientific Synchronicity Theory

In replacing a causal principle with an a-causal linking principle leads to Jung’s (1960) decidedly anti scientific conclusion: “I doubt whether a rational explanation of these occurrences is even possible.” (Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Coll. Wks. Vol.8, 159) Thus a connection of causality replaced by a connection of meaning resulted in Jung’s formulation of synchronicities as half psychodynamic and half mystical/magical (transpersonal).

In this connection, the exceedingly meaningful but seemingly un-caused event (the Scarab coincidence) led Jung (1955) to assert his radical, seductive, provocative, and challenging conclusion that with occurrences like this: “their “inexplicability” is not due to the fact that their cause is unknown, but to the fact that a cause is not even thinkable in intellectual terms.” Thus, in one sentence Jung openly declared war on the Freudian bedrock assumption of psychic determinism. (Jung, Synchronicity, 143)

What is ground breaking about this formulation [that A and A’ may be linked not only causally but by meaning as well] is that it challenges the conventional Freudian theory of psychic determinism which assumes that all psychological material obeys known immutable laws of psychodynamic causation (linear logic). Indeed it ushered in Jung’s own brand of psychoanalysis which he named Analytic Psychology.

It also has had the net effect of switching the focus from the personal unconscious to the collective unconscious. Additionally it makes the issue of the meaning of meaning front and center with respect to understanding the nature and use of synchronicities.


Initially, as a dedicated Freudian analyst, Jung attempted to account for the production of synchronicities from the perspective of a scientist utilizing the methodology of Freudian psychodynamic depth psychology (psychoanalysis). But the when it came to understanding the link between the internal experience A with the seemingly uncaused but impressively meaningful

external event A’ Jung was galvanized into his never ending quest to incorporate science and religion into his particular blend of psychoanalysis (Analytic Psychology).


After Jung parted ways with Freud in 1916 he struggled to integrate his ideas into a coherent theory. This, of course, was a major problem for Jung as his radical perspective clashed with the basic assumptions upon which conventional classical (Freudian) psychoanalysis was constructed.


The core of his radical perspective was his understanding about the nature, origin, and location of the meaningfulness associated with all synchronistic experiences. The Freudian focus on identifying a given patient’s historical material as the primary source of meaning was for Jung now centered on enabling a patient to connect with an assumed archetypal transcendent realm of absolute meaning.

The scarab synchronicity appears to have consolidated a number of Jung’s insights. Thus while this particular meaningful coincidence was an apparent life defining event for his patient there is no doubt that it was an equally life defining event for Jung as well. Jung (1925?) was so profoundly impacted by his shared experience with his patient that he stated: “never before nor since has he ever experienced an event quite like that one was.” (Jung, On Synchronicity, 525-6)

In this connection Williams (2010) says:

This … [synchronicity ] … is conjectured to have dynamically brought together in a

single event the core concepts he had explored in his period of self-imposed isolation.

Thus this synchronicity may be considered to be a marker experience of a notable

progression (crystallization) of Jung’s creative powers notably in the area of synthesizing

and integrating previously disparate abstract concepts into a dynamically lived concrete

experience (cathexis). (Williams, Demystifying, 46)


Anyone experiencing these remarkable phenomena is appreciative of their capacity to stir up profound emotions such as awe and the uncanny. Thus emotionally they are exceedingly powerful experiences which make one feel they are in the presence of some extraordinary source of transcendent knowledge and meaningfulness. The question, of course, is what is the truth of the matter. And as all researchers of this subject matter explicitly or implicitly concur – the key to ascertaining the truth of the matter lies in understanding the nature of the link connecting the subjective psychological state A with the apparently uncaused but clearly equivalently meaningful external event.

Williams (2010) notes that Jung’s preoccupation with understanding the nature of the scarab

synchronicity focusing on the perplexing link connecting A and A’ has had significant theoretical and practical (treatment) implications. He states:


the positing of these two linking principles—one causal and the other a-causal—places

synchronicities square in the middle of an historical debate beginning with the pre Socratic

philosophers framed as a dialectic between alternative views of the acquisition of knowledge

as well as alternative views as to the nature of the knowledge acquired. These two views

are that the content of objective knowledge of reality and the means by which we acquire

knowledge. Either knowledge is (l) discovered (deduced) or (2) it is created (induced). Further,

that the knowledge accessed is either revealed or is realized. Thus, continues a dialogue between

adherents of Plato (Jung) versus the adherents of Aristotle (Freud) with respect to determining

whose perspective provides mankind access to the truer truth. (Williams, Demystifying , 51)


Equivalence of Meaning

Jung’s phrase “the equivalence of meaning” refers to the similarity or double (twin) nature of the subjective and the objective events comprising any synchronicity. For example: being handed the scarab in his patient’s dream is equivalent in meaning to the scarab beetle Jung handed his patient in her next day’s therapy session. However, Jung implies that meaningful connectedness associated with synchronicities is much more than simply an exact duplicate of each scarab reference. What is of most importance to Jung, is not only that both ‘scarabs’ together add up to an equivalency of meaning; but, that the parallel scarabs are surface manifestations of an individual connecting with an activated archetype originating in the assumed realm of absolute meaning.


Equivalence of meaning” is assumed by Jung (1955) to be a direct pathway to the acquisition of vital self knowledge. (Jung, Synchronicity, 50) It is important to recall that the acquisition of knowledge associated with synchronicities from a Jungian perspective assumes that it issues from an assumed realm of absolute meaning that is both transcendent and transpersonal with respect to human beings.

Thus the two scarabs experienced simultaneously and somehow felt to be meaningful, derive their meaningfulness, according to Jung because they are external manifestations of an activated archetypal symbol the knowledge of which is supposed to further the individuation of a given experiencer.

The activation of an archetype for Jung (1978) initiates a process whereby a person connects with the assumed transcendent realm of ‘absolute meaning’ resulting in a transformative numinous synchronicity. The meaning conveyed “mobilizes philosophical and religious convictions in the very people who deemed themselves miles above any such fits of weakness.”

(Jung, On the Nature of the Psyche, Col. Wks. Vol 8., par.405,205-06.)


A naturalistic theoretician of synchronicities is obligated to strip away, (demystify) the supernatural coloration of Jung’s psychodynamic/supernatural perspective. To accomplish this task requires an open minded person to consider that what Jung asserts as proven fact may just be a brilliantly imaginative but unproven hypothesis.


A naturalistic theory of synchronicities begins with the ontological assumption that absolute reality can never be directly known but only induced (constructed). What is induced are the findings derived from various fields of knowledge including those of speculative philosophy (i.e. pragmatism); schools of depth psychology (i.e. object relations, self psychology); aspects of the esoteric occult; spirituality (i.e. immanent as well as mystical), the philosophy of science (i.e. that which focuses on the nature of causality) that in turn maybe utilized as singular and, or composite filters of experience.

For our purposes naturalistic means that attempted explanations are derived from the application of scientific method that presumes knowable (either already known or potentially knowable) cause and effect relationships establishing order and clarity in place of randomness and vagueness. The preceding chapters indicate that the operational definition of causality used to explain synchronicities calls for a revision of its basic structure.


C. I. Lewis (1929) summarizes this point of view as follows:

In experience, mind is confronted with the chaos of the given. In the interest of adaptation

and control, [which is what patients are seeking to change, transformation from

psychological pain—compulsion/impulsion] it seeks to discover within or impose upon this

chaos some kind of stable order, through which distinguishable items may become the signs

of future possibilities. Those patterns of distinction and relationship which we thus seek to

establish are our concepts. These must be determined in advance of the particular experience

to which they apply in order that what is given may have meaning. Until the criteria of our

interpretation have been fixed, no experience could be the sign of anything or even answer

any question. Concepts thus represent what mind brings to experience. (Lewis, Mind and the

World Order, 230)


The inescapable limitation placed on the extent to which we limited mortals may hope to have absolute knowledge of the ‘real’ nature of reality does not mean all attempts to accomplish this worthy task are meaningless and futile. It does mean that in attempting to do so it is important to state alternative assumptions (inevitable biases) so that all interested parties have access

to the full range of possibilities from which to make their own independent judgments.

In this connection Williams (2010) asks a number of organizing questions in guiding his attempt to formulate a valid naturalistic theory of synchronicities. These questions follow:


What if reality is not “spiritualized” in the Jungian sense of this term?

What if there is no personal intercession by a conscious god, spirit guides,

angels, master teachers, and the likes leaving us mortals essentially on our own to be our own

final authorities?

What if there is no realm of transcendent absolute knowledge or meaning?

What if, instead, meanings are constructed as byproducts of the self always adding something

of itself rather than already preformed, out there, and passively channeled?

What if unity does not exist in the form of a “preformed patterning” but instead is the result of

a convergence of a spectrum of various perspectives?

What if the self is not already preformed and whole but must be grown as a byproduct of

systematic struggle with struggle?

What if significant change is possible but is the result of an evolutionary not revolutionary

process dogged by resistance, the major one being the need to repeat the familiar?

What if synchronicities do in fact indicate the actuality of significant psychological change but

are conceived of as less a single event than as a progression of an expanding self connecting

with, harnessing, and directing its available powers?

What if transformation of the self comes about not in the ‘twinkling of an eye’ but as the result

of persistent hard work in which the ‘patient’ struggling with struggle to make meaningful

connections with himself and the object world such that a synchronicity marks the integration

of the various connections resulting in an expansion of consciousness?

What if the ultimate benefit of these remarkable occurrences further the subject’s connection

with their own creative process? (Williams, 2010, 17-18)

Additional Theoretical Considerations:

My immersion in the literature generated an additional list of organizing questions – most of them concerned with understanding the nature of meaning associated with synchronistic phenomena.

Once my doubts deepened my research took the form of exploring one challenging question after another until it became undeniably clear that Jung’s seemingly obvious supernatural conclusion was, upon careful analysis, not as obvious and clear-cut as I had first believed.

The list is in no particular order.

Additional Organizing Questions Raised by Williams (2010)

Are there other forms of causality besides that of conventional scientific causality?

If other forms of causality are existent, might any of them be utilized as an adequate linking
principle?

What is the meaning of meaning to which Jung is alluding?

Are there alternative definitions of meaning?

What is the relationship between meaning and causality?

Are there other sources of meaning besides the Jungian formulation of a realm of absolute
meaning?

What is an example of so called direct unmediated knowledge?

Are there alternative operational definitions of the term a priori?

Does a prior necessary imply transcendence in the “heavenly” sense of that term?

Are there different meanings of the concept of transcendence?

What exactly is meant by the concept of spirituality?

Assuming that synchronicities are self generated messages what are the implications for the felt

sense of spiritual feelings associated with them?

Can a naturalistic perspective of synchronicities incorporate spirituality?

Are there alternative perspectives associated with the experience of simultaneity?

Assuming the Jungians are accurate, what specific knowledge is transmitted from a connection

to the realm of archetypal meaning?

Are there alternative definitions of the concept unity?

If there is no common “mind stuff” or nous then what are the implications of synchronistic
experiences?

What specifically changes in the concept of significant change associated with synchronicities?

What is the criterion for significant change and /or transformations?

Are the changes (transformations) associated with synchronicities permanent?

Do different clusters of organizing concepts or clusters of organizing concepts with alternative meanings alter our understanding of the nature and perhaps use of synchronicities?

Do alternative perspectives of synchronicities yield different information?

Are synchronicities revealed, discovered, or created?

What is the self and where is it located?

Does the self evolve?

What is the distinction between the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious?

What is the operational definition of the “creative process” and how it is related to the evolving
self, and the personal unconscious?

Are there alternative forms of consciousness? (Williams, 99,100)

The deeper I probed the more it appeared that the phenomena that seemed at first reading to be a clear cut member of the supernatural club of inexplicable phenomena was beginning to shed its mysterious garb and looked to be increasingly more explainable as a potentially knowable byproduct of natural processes.

In addition to my own questions listed above, I have selected a few suggested issues raised by
adherents of the Jungian point of view to be explored. These question follow.


Some Additional Questions and Unresolved Issues Raised by Other Researchers

What are the factors that initiate synchronicities or give them their crystallized form?

Are there specific characteristics by which we can recognize synchronistic events as they are
preparing to occur? What are the processes by which synchronistic events take place?

Is it correct to speak of process where the principle involved is a noncausal one?

Do we require new terms to replace concepts like process in the light of synchronicity and the
transcausal factor?

Will it be sufficient to define these terms more closely and in new ways?

One specific hypothesis that is worth investigating is whether the lives of those individuals who
can be classified as "creative persons" show a particular tendency toward the occurrence of
synchronistic events. If this turns out to be verified in any degree, the implications may be of
great importance.

Repeatedly we have seen that the factor of integrative orderedness is of primary importance in
synchronistic phenomena, and it is not reflected at all in the term, nor in any part of the
nomenclature that Jung developed.

  • Progoff (1973) says “this is one major point where a sharper formulation with a more specific terminology may be helpful in extending the universe? (Progoff, Synchronicity, 167)

Aziz (1990) states: “Although the literature on synchronicity that has followed Jung’s principle
essay is quite broad in its scope, a comprehensive study of the synchronicity concept in
relationship to the individuation process has yet to be undertaken.”
(Aziz, 1990, Jung’s Psychology, 3) He proceeds to make this task the central aim of his book. He does so relating the process of individuation with religious and spiritual aspects. Implied in Aziz’s (1990) task is himself or someone else doing the same thing, that is, undertaking “a comprehensive study of the synchronicity concept in relationship to the individuation process” from a purely naturalistic perspective. (Aziz, Jung’s Psychology of Religion and Synchronicity, 3)

My research strongly indicates that to do justice to the complexity of these mysterious happenings requires an objective researcher to “Rashomon” (movie, 1950) the core facts associated with the production of meaningful coincidences. In other words, the objective investigator will keep an open mind, understanding that the primary assumptions and the organizing concepts chosen to interpret the experience of synchronicities will yield either a supernatural or a naturalistic perspective depending on which assumptions and derived cluster of concepts is chosen to make the best sense out of the available data.

Ultimately it is the individual’s choice as to which perspective feels most resonant with his or her direct experience. What is at issue here is that the preference be made with the understanding that there are at least two radically different perspectives from which to choose: a partially naturalistic and partially supernatural theory of synchronicities or a purely naturalistic theory
of synchronicities.


Jung’s Three Anti Causal Arguments

Successfully refuting Jung’s anti causal arguments provides the scientific rational in formulating one or more naturalistic theories of synchronicity. Two such naturalistic theories, M. D. Faber’s regressive naturalistic theory and G.A. Williams’s progressive naturalistic theory. For our present purposes only Jung’s second anti- causal argument will be discussed.

Jung’s Second Anti- Causal Argument

Jung’s (1955) second anti-causal argument is as follows:

Conventional physics believed that there are necessary relationships connecting events

with each other. That is, that event B could be demonstrated to invariably follow from

event A. Modern physics has demonstrated that necessary is replaced by probability

theory. Since there is no apparent necessary connection between A and A’ of a given

synchronicity then once again causality is eliminated. (Jung, Interpretation of Nature

and the Psyche, 24-29)

By eliminating (conventional) causality, Jung (1955) concludes: “[this] leaves us only with equivalence of meaning and simultaneity.” (Jung, Synchronicity, 51) While this formulation is apparently clear to Jung, this researcher believes that these terms- meaning and simultaneity-raise more perplexing questions than provide definitive answers.

It is reasonable to conjecture that a naturalistic understanding of these anomalous events is likely to be found in a careful examination as to what is meant by the meaning associated with the Jungian phrase “an equivalence of meaning” and the relationship between causality and meaning.

The inescapable limitation placed on the extent to which we limited mortals may hope to have absolute knowledge of the ‘real’ nature of reality does not mean all attempts to accomplish this worthy task are meaningless and futile. It does mean that in attempting to do so it is important to state alternative assumptions ( inevitable biases) so that all interested parties have access
to the full range of possibilities from which to make their own independent judgments.

Successfully refuting Jung’s anti causal arguments provides the scientific rational in formulating one or more naturalistic theories of synchronicity. Two such naturalistic theories, M. D. Faber’s regressive naturalistic theory and G.A.Williams’s progressive naturalistic theory

Faber’s Psychodynamic Developmental Regressive Naturalistic Theory of Synchronicities –

Without expressly mentioning it Faber (1998) formulates his naturalistic theory of synchronicities by refuting – in his own way – Jung’s second anti – causal argument.

Williams (2010) says that Faber’s stated aim is to “strip away” by “unpacking” and “deconstructing” the magic and mysticism that Jung militantly believes is absolutely essential in accurately appreciating the nature of and wondrous implications of these extraordinary events.

Thus he locates meaningfulness in the preoedipal conscious of the new born. Faber also suggests that Jung spiritualizes the transformational object by transposing the meaningful connections with the mother (and subsequent connections with known and unknown authorities that come to populate the child’s collective consciousness) into the occult, unseen, universal and transpersonal realm of absolute meaning and knowledge Jung refers to as the collective unconscious.

Thus what Jung calls apriori in unus mundus for Faber (1998) is “the internalization of the early period in which the parental object functions as the dynamic, emotive, [for] “all those centers of the neonates existence.” (Faber, Synchronicity, 37) When needs are experienced as perfectly met, the feeling of at-one-ment characteristic of those who describe their reactions to synchronicities is equivalent to the mystical feelings associated with those who feel as if they have been the recipients of divine intervention. In this light, it is easy to understand how many who experience
synchronicities typically believe they are “heavenly signs”- verifying the wondrous powers of God intervening in a given person’s behalf. “Boundaries are dissolved, an experience of at-one-ment…projected power… Needs are perfectly met.” (Faber, Synchronicity C.G. Jung, Psychoanalysis and Religion, 84)

Faber (1998) demystifies all of Jung’s theoretical concepts and by converting them into the framework of object relations theory. Thus whereas views the origin of numinosity resulting from a person’s connection with an assumed realm of absolute meaning, Faber understands its origins occurring in the experience of a baby experiencing an exquisite attunement with its loving mother. (Faber, Synchroncity, 125)

Williams’ Rebuttal of Jung’s Second Anti-causal Argument

Williams (2010) deliberately refutes Jung’s second anti-causal argument. In so doing he conjectures that some of the difficulties involved in the argument as to whether causality is, or is not adequately able to be used to explain the nature of the nexus linking A and A’ of a given synchronicity is largely due to a lack of specificity as to what is precisely meant by the terms causality and meaning and their interrelationship. (Williams, Demystifying Meaningful Coincidences, 59)


According to Williams (2010) successfully refuting Jung’s second argument necessitates that the researcher be able to demonstrate some causal link between A and A’. Jung says this is not even conceivable. Williams’ research indicates that an alternative form of causality (psychological causality appears to satisfactorily accomplish this task. (Williams, Demystifying Meaningful Coincidences, 82-83)

In this context - Freud insists that our delusions to the contrary be stripped away and for us to not close our critical minds and be lured by the soporific siren call of the occult. Freud (1941) warns:
The occultists . . . will be welcomed as liberators from the irksome obligation of thinking
rationally. . . . It is a vain hope that analytic work would escape this collapse of values
simply because its object is the mysterious unconscious. If the spirits, with whom man is
familiar, provide the final explanation, then there will be no interest in the laborious
approach of analysis to understand unknown psychic forces. Even analytic technique will
be forsaken when hope beckons that occult measures will enable one to enter into direct
communication with the spirits who determine everything, just as one forsakes patient
detail work, when there is hope of winning riches at a single stroke, through speculations.
(Freud, Psychoanalysis and Telepathy)
Further that whereas Jung insisted that there must be a “spiritual” component transcending pure
reason, Freud equally insisted that psychodynamic understanding alone—should ultimately
provide a rational explanation.


Applied to Jung’s second anti-causal argument-the problem of rare and spontaneous events-what is needed, to refute it, as Freud implies, is an infusion of new organizing concepts enabling these random events to be brought under the scrutiny of scientific investigation.

Differing Conceptualizations of Meaning Lead to the Self as One’s Final Authority

Applied to investigating the nature of synchronicities I think it significant to state what Freud (1901) had to say in differentiating his methodology from that of the “superstitious”: “The difference between myself and the superstitious person are two. First he projects outwards a motivation which I look for within; secondly, he interprets chance as due to an event, while I
trace it back to a thought. But what is hidden from him corresponds to what is unconscious for me.” (Freud, Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Chapter 12)

In following Freud’s advice: whereas Jung almost completely shuns the utilization of the personal unconscious favoring almost exclusively the collective unconscious, my research strong argues for a return to the utilization of the personal unconscious in demystifying the many perplexities associated with synchronistic phenomenon.

Williams’ research provides a method for extracting the meanings inherent in the synchronicities he observed among some of his synchronicity prone patients. His research notes that a naturalistic approach to understanding the psychological must always start with the fact that it takes a particular person to generate a given synchronicity. This says Devereux (1953) in his critically important book called Psychoanalysis and the Occult that this indicates that [these phenomena] are psychological phenomena, which must be studied in terms of the frame of reference.” (Devereux, Psychoanalysis and the Occult, 25)

Speaking to this point, Helene Deutsch (1926) pondering the difficulty of explaining occult phenomena, spells out the concrete details of such a “frame of reference” providing critically important guidance in conceptualizing a methodological breakthrough for scientifically investigating synchronicities even though they are rare, spontaneous, and seemingly random events. Deutsch, Occult Processes Occurring During Psychoanalysis, cited in Psychoanalysis and the Occult, 134.

Deutsch’s intriguing idea was to demystify so called ‘occult’ phenomena, such as synchronicities, into a person’s stream of experience. In so doing, Deutsch (1926) believed that these kinds of mysterious events would be transformed from incomprehensible to comprehensible, by filling in the gaps that come to light in the analytic process.

Specifically, Deutsch offers the critically important suggestion (picked up by Williams) “…that
only by fitting such “occult” incidents into a continuum can one deprive them of their mystical features.” (Deutsch, Occult Processes Occurring During Psychoanalysis, cited in Psychoanalysis and the Occult, 134)

When the pragmatic principles listed above are combined with the conceptualizations of Deutsch, Devereux, and Freud, the resulting mix may be utilized as an organizing methodological filter to make naturalistic sense out of the seemingly supernatural phenomena of synchronicities. This means that synchronicities may now be scientifically investigated by viewing them as embedded in potentially knowable psychological contexts.

My research suggests that when viewing these perplexing events arising out of potentially knowable contexts psychological causality will be sufficient to adequately explain the conditions under which synchronicities arise, will illuminate the psychological process which produces them, and will adequately explain how this naturalistic process links the internal event to the parallel external event despite Jung’s insistence that this task is inconceivable in rational terms.


Williams deliberately rebuts Jung’s second anti-causal argument. In so doing he conjectures that
some of the difficulties involved in the argument as to whether causality is, or is not adequately able to be used to explain the nature of the nexus linking A and A’ of a given synchronicity is largely due to a lack of specificity as to what is precisely meant by the terms causality and meaning and their interrelationship.


Applied to Jung’s second anti-causal argument—the problem of rare and spontaneous events—what is needed, to refute it, as Freud implies, is an infusion of new organizing concepts enabling these random events to be brought under the scrutiny of scientific investigation.

In this light, Jung rests this second anti-causal argument on three debatable assumptions. These assumptions concern the nature of causality; the nature of meaning; and an implied relationship between causality and meaning.


Specifically, (1) Jung assumes that there is only one kind of causality that can be conceptualized to explain the link between A and A’ and that this one and only conceptualization of causality is found to be irretrievably inadequate; (2) Jung assumes that by replacing causality with the concept of “an equivalence of meaning” that this operational definition of meaning is unquestionably clear; and (3) Jung further assumes that there is no direct nor indirect relationship between causality and meaning.

Williams’ (2010) research indicates that (1) besides conventional causality other conceptualizations of causality (i.e. psychological or synthetic causality) may be used as adequate explanatory principle accounting for the link between A and A’; (2) Jung’s definition of meaning – particularly that of subsistent a –priori absolute meaning is called into question on philosophical, developmental, and advances in depth psychology (i.e. object relations theory); and (3) causality and meaning are shown to both be linking principles viewed on a continuum with respect to purposes they serve. (Williams, Demystifying Meaningful Coincidences, 290, 291)


Thus, for example, in a naturalistic formulation of synchronicities, acquiring knowledge of something is an active process involving a particular individual always adding something of itself in the selection of “facts” and in the interpretation of those “facts.” In so doing the process of knowing always involves some causal agent (the self) generating links between some subjective state A with some objective state A’ resulting in a link of meaningful “significance.”

An apt description of psychological causality is that of Kaplan (1961) in his book The New
World of Philosophy:


The facts of experience are not “data”—what is given—but rather what is taken: a “fact” is etymologically something made. The perceptual experience from which knowledge  issues is more like reading the expression in a face than it is like solving a cryptogram or a crossword puzzle. What is at work is not a process of sheer ratiocination, but processes of identification, introjection, and other such mechanisms, largely unconscious and preconscious.” (Kaplan, The New World of Philosophy, 78

Thus, a naturalistic interpretation of meaning takes the position that each person is ultimately
stuck with accepting final responsibility for the idiosyncratic meanings that govern his life giving
it value. This means “that in the final analysis, ultimately there is your experience, your experience of your experience, the conscious and unconscious meanings attributed to your experience, and the role these meanings play in a persons’ psychic economy expressed in the form of attitudes and behavior” (personal communication, Rudolf Wittenberg).

By contrast, Jung, believes that really absolute “meaning” is assumed to be located “out there”—transcendent-, a priori, in its own absolute realm of existence. Further, for Jung, this realm of absolute meaning is equivalent with mythological consciousness regarded by Jung as the substrate of human knowledge.


Williams’ Psychodynamic Progressive Developmental Naturalistic Theory of Synchronicities

Says Williams (2010) the primary aim of his book - Demystifying Meaningful Coincidences: The Evolving Self, The Personal Unconscious, and the Creative Process) is “to explore the nature of meaningful coincidences from the depth psychological/supernatural perspective and the depth psychological/naturalistic perspective identifying and exploring (1) alternative primary assumptions about the nature of reality, knowledge about reality, and ways in which this knowledge is accessed; leading to (2) identifying alternative organizing concepts (lens, filters) to be used in the service of enriching the specificity of detail applied to better understanding one’s self. This self-knowledge is partially derived from decoding the embedded “messages” in one’s synchronicities.” (Williams, Demystifying Meaningful Coincidences, 22)


A Summary of Williams’ (2010) Major Findings

  •  Synchronicities are markers of significant psychological change.

  •  Synchronicities are markers of problem resolution in coded form.

  •  Synchronicities indicate a significant shift in attitude toward the problem that was previously experienced as unsolvable.

  • The change associated with synchronicities results in an increasing cohesion of the self structure, and expansion of consciousness, a greater tolerance for ambivalence and complexity, and a strengthening of the autonomous ego function of synthesis resulting innotable signs of integration of a person’s powers.

  • The “message” embedded in the coded synchronicity is a self-generated communication for the purposes of furthering one’s self development in the areas of being and doing.

  • Synchronicities illuminate how a person generates his or her own meaningful connections as a byproduct of their developing awareness and utilization of what I refer to as “experiential” or "instinctual” logic.

  • Fertile Conditions for Synchronicities to Arise

  • Most significantly my findings demonstrate that at least the synchronicities described in this book are seen to occur in the midst of highly specific and knowable conditions, thus fulfilling the criterion Taylor (1903) set forth for validating the presence of causation. Says Taylor:Causation means sequence under definitely known conditions.”4

  • What initially appears to be like a shooting star or a firefly’s spark when subjected to contextual analysis indicates that meaningful coincidences (synchronicities) (at least the ones described in this book) all happen in a highly specific and potentially knowable set of conditions. Fertile conditions for the birth of a synchronicity is when a person perceives that they are experiencing psychological “gridlock” in their frustrated abilities to resolve a seemingly unsolvable problem. This stuck point is typically described as the patient feeling trapped, weighted down, in a state of crisis. (Williams, Demystifying Meaningful Coincidences, 259)

Differences re meaning in Naturalistic as in Faber and Williams

A Bridge to Williams Naturalistic Progressive Theory of Synchronicities Faber makes a valuable contribution in demystifying seemingly inexplicable synchronistic anomalies. He provides reasonable naturalistic concepts as replacements for the more mystical concepts used by Jung pointing to a potential naturalistic understanding of the intricate psychological process assumed to produce these seemingly a causal events.


However, whereas synchronicities for Faber appear to function as nothing more than regressions to pre oedipal consciousness re-creating a real or fantasized merger with the ‘good primary care giver’; for Williams, synchronicities function as progressive events arising out of the need for human beings to continually resolve inevitable life problems of being, doing, and becoming by
connecting to their idiosyncratic creative process.


While there is every reason to believe, as Faber asserts, that synchronicities do involve a regression to pre oedipal consciousness, unlike Faber the regression for Williams is not an end in itself but a radical beginning of a much more complicated psychological process. Therefore where Faber ends, Williams continues.


Alternative first assumptions yield alternative perspectives re the meaning of meaning and its contribution to understanding a process leading to the production of meaningful coincidences.


Treatment Implications and Applications: Working with Synchronicities

It is here where differences in basic assumptions about the nature of reality, knowledge of reality, and the means by which knowledge is accessed make a major difference in the way a given therapist is likely going to work with synchronicity prone patients. If you believe that the “messages” associated with synchronicities are vital information channeled directly from an assumed realm of archetypal knowledge hence no need to interpret it, then you as patient or therapist will respond to the material in a Jungian way. If however you view synchronicities as self-generated messages from ones’ self, you, the patient or therapist, should be encouraged to make as many meaningful associations with the material as possible.


Meanings Are Embedded in the Overlapping Contexts of a Patient’s Stream of Consciousness.

Williams’ research (2010) indicates that:

alternative theories of synchronicities associated with different clusters of organizing concepts
[lead] to an alternative method [contextual analysis] of decoding the messages from that of Jung. This is so because alternative organizing concepts (filters of experience) focus our attention onto different areas of experience enabling us to highlight the data that is most central to one’s direct experience of the moment. Since synchronicities are associated with psychological problem solving, different interpretations of decoded messages are likely to yield different problem solutions. (Williams, Demystifying, 12)


Steps in the Contextual Analysis of Patient’s Synchronicities

On a practical level, to fulfill the requirements of this task requires the researcher to keep a carefully annotated journal recording relevant contexts in which synchronicities are embedded. These contexts may include: the surface situational context, that is, identifying where the person is located in time and space; the present psychological context: that is, identifying the major psychological problem preoccupying the person; and identifying the developmental/ historical psychological context, that is, identifying origins, and vicissitudes of the identified core psychological problem assumed to underlie each and every meaningful coincidence.


Some therapists who advocate working with synchronicities as if they were “waking dreams.” This is so because these occurrences appear to be creative by-products of a great deal of working though that has started with a seed—so to speak—and is now—in the form of a synchronicity—a visible flower.


A Contextual Analysis of the Scarab Synchronicity

Whether it was done intentionally or was a “Jungian slip” his omission of taking note of his patient’s probable transference resistance in his interpretation of the “scarab” coincidence—is a clear rejection of the core concepts utilized in classical “Freudian” psychoanalysis. One can only conjecture what the outcome would have been if he had asked this patient a number of important

questions. These questions include: what the meaning of this event was for her? What else was associated with the golden scarab? What was the meaning(s) of her being given a gift? And, what indeed would the meanings be concerning the likely special meaning attributed to the special gift from the patient’s special man—in this case her analyst- Jung.


It is important to note that in the seminal “Scarab” synchronicity, Jung overlooks any historical material about his patient. Jung is clearly interested not where this woman has come from (analyzing her developmental origins) but to where he thinks she needs to be going—specifically reconnecting her to lost transcendent function, a decidedly religious or spiritual goal.


Additionally, Freud would no doubt be interested more in the idiosyncratic associations of this patient—eliciting the meanings of the various scarabs to her—rather than focusing exclusively on the his own associations, that is, Jung’s conviction that the scarab double is a symbol of rebirth and transformation assumed to have the same meaning for his patient as it obviously did for Jung.


Summary

This contextual analytic approach to investigating the nature of synchronicities identifies the essential difference between Jung’s psychodynamic/supernatural perspective and a psychodynamic/naturalistic approach such as Faber’s and my own. This difference is found in our respective alternative understandings as to the source of the “special meaning” that differentiates a mere coincidence from an especially meaningful coincidence. Whereas Jung attributes the source of the “specialness” to a direct connection with an activated archetype that is transmitting vital information to the self from a realm of absolute transcendent ‘a priori’ (un-interpreted) meaning; I understand the source of the “specialness” to be a found in purely immanent location—the byproduct of the human being attributing personal meanings and projecting them onto an a selected external event that is mirrored back, and is experienced as a coded message received from some external ‘transcendent’ source.


On Decoding Your Own Synchronicities


It bears repeating that a person does not have to be a patient in analytic treatment for an extended amount of time to be able to benefit from the self-generated messages sent to you from your creative core. The following are some guidelines to effective decoding.


Decoding implies a process that is for the purpose of illuminating the assumed “hidden” or embedded information. Relevant questions are: what is the nature of this information, from where is it generated, how is it best utilized once decoded. Alternative answers to these questions will obviously determine the attitude of the therapist in working with a given patient who spontaneously presents synchronicities as material for his or her sessions.

By all means keep a journal of those experiences you feel are noteworthy for any reason. A journal is not a diary, so you may enter anything you wish at any time. It might be that months go by without a single entry. Or you might fill up half the book talking about only the last two days of your life. Make sure you date each entry.

When a synchronicity occurs, describe it in detail and insert it into the journal material you have amassed. • Before you consider the synchronicity, ask yourself if you can identify a problem with which you have been preoccupied that has seemed virtually impossible to resolve. If you can do so, according to my theory, your synchronicity indicates you have a preconscious solution that needs to be decoded so you can take the new path you thought would never be  available to you.

Now look at the details of your synchronicity. • Identify the two halves of the synchronicity which will be equivalent in meaning.

Then “free associate” to either one or the other or both halves of the synchronicity. Bear in mind that if I am correct the details of the synchronicity will have an intimate and inevitable link to what you identified as your pressing unsolvable problem.

Keep at it as sometimes the meanings and the “message” are elusive.


Observations

Alternative forms of depth psychology have argued about their status in relation to religion and science.

In this light, the primary aim of my research is to explore the nature of meaningful coincidences from the depth psychological/supernatural perspective and the depth psychological/naturalistic perspective identifying and exploring (1) alternative primary assumptions about the nature of reality, knowledge about reality, and ways in which this knowledge is accessed; leading to (2)

identifying alternative organizing concepts (lens, filters) to be used in the service of enriching the specificity of detail applied to better understanding one’s self. This self-knowledge is partially derived from decoding the embedded “messages” in one’s synchronicities.

Having two distinct points of view in mind should enable the interested researcher to be more objective in his or her attempts to determine for themselves how to get the most out of their synchronistic experiences.


Evidence indicates that a synchronicity is a marker that a creative solution to an otherwise intractable problem has been found. In my experience of these always impacting events, I literally experience my boundaries stretching accompanied by feelings that I am actively processing the raw data of my existence generating purposeful behavior.


In my experience there is nothing mystical or supernatural about these wondrous events. When a synchronicity is first noted, it is like sighting the appearance of the opening of a colorful spring flower. What is first noticed is the color, and the remarkable patterning and freedom of the newly appearing object.


What is less noted is the fact that this colorful, free object first began its existence as a small seed that had to be nurtured with an adequate proportion of water, sunlight, and soil. The nurtured seed then had to work its way through the earth taking the form of an evolving root system. After struggling against resistance the eventual flower appears like a miracle, but in reality it is the end product of a mundane, though wondrous, natural process of slow and steady growth and development. The seed turning into a flower is indeed a major process of transformation
punctuated by significant phases of incremental change.


Conclusions


The key to understanding the process that leads to the production of synchronicities from a
naturalistic perspective entails treating them as byproducts of human beings’ needing to
accommodate creative solutions to seemingly intractable dilemmas.


Williams’ approach to synchronicities only refers to the earth plane on which we live and
struggle for surviving and thriving. Along every person’s personal trip through life there are
inevitable “forks in the road.” The attitude toward these stuck points is essential for a salutary
outcome. In all cases there is a problem to be resolved that is initially experienced as
unsolvable. There are essentially two attitudes to the perception of passive surrender or an
active willingness to struggle with struggle to continue to search for an accommodating solution.


The choice to struggle with struggle—no matter what—stimulates a person’s idiosyncratic
creative process. This process enlists a person’s various streams of information: thoughts,
feelings, intuitions, and bodily sensations in the service of finding relevant “clues” in a
psychological scavenger hunt. Each clue is like identifying and grasping a piece of acomplex,  multileveled psychological jigsaw puzzle. When enough pieces (clues) are gathered
together which reveal a recognizable pattern, this indicates that the problem that sparked this
search is well on the way to being resolved. Much of this work in generating meaningful
connections happens unconsciously—and is thought to be the province of the personal
not the collective unconscious. In place of the idea of a search for revealed absolute meaning
instead is the idea of realized meanings as the by-product of a person’s search for meaningful
connections with himself and the object world.


Viewing the production of meaningful coincidences from the vantage point of a science of
psychodynamics indicates that they are associated with significant psychological change and
transformation of the self. Change begins with the experience of the experience as
encountering a “fork in the road,” which is experienced as psychological “gridlock.” The
initial attitude to the experience of quintessential stuckness is existential entrapment. If the
person can be induced to struggle with struggle their proactive attitude to the perception of
being hopelessly pinned will stimulate their idiosyncratic creative process. Thus static energy
is converted into kinetic energy, or in other terms negative reverberation is converted into
positive reverberation oscillation. If the patient persists in their attitude of struggling with
struggle, the desired outcome of a creative solution to their seemingly unsolvable problem is greatly enhanced. If and when a solution is “found” it will be announced in the form of a synchronicity which—because it is in the preconscious — has to further be decoded.


Finally, bearing in mind that researching this most challenging topic continues, it is apt to conclude my current efforts quoting the Ralph Waldo Emerson poem: “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”


REFERENCES


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Freud, S. (1941) Strachey, J (ed) Psychoanalysis and Telepathy. Standard Edition of Freud’s

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Jung, C.G. ((1927) ‘The Structure of the Psyche.CW 8: 139-28. London: Routledge & Kegan

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Meaning in Coincidences. New York http://www.nourfoundation.com/cms/front_content.php

Progoff, I. (1973) Jung, Synchronicity, and Human Destiny. New York: Julian Press.

Rashomon (1950) Movie. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042876/plotsummary

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Yale University Symposium (2010) “The Synchro Project: Toward a Method for the Study of

Synchronicity - http://www.synchroproject.org/


Gibbs A. Williams Ph.D. © 2010