Synchronicity - When and How Does it Occur?

It is easy to be amazed and slightly in awe when experiencing synchronistic events. It is easy to feel that the experience is "magical" or uncanny.

Early psychologists shared our fascination with the experience. Carl Jung is famous for his reflections on the phenomenon, calling it an "acausal connecting principle" by which he meant that it was produced by something inexplicable rather than by the usual process of cause and effect.

Sigmund Freud also struggled to understand these sorts of experiences which he labeled as "occult". He linked the experience to the influence of unconscious processes saying: "The differences between myself and the superstitious person are two: first, he projects outwards a motive which I look for within; secondly he interprets chance 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, 1919, The Uncanny).

One might say that synchronicity is a phenomenon arising out of the interaction between inner and outer realities. When a synchronicity is described as a "meaningful coincidence" the emphasis should perhaps be placed on the quality of meaning.

Jungian analyst James Hollis observes insightfuly that whenever "inner and outer engage, unite, we experience this as meaning". When experiencing a synchronicity we marvel at the co-occurrence of an exterior reality and an inner event such as a dream, or fantasy. We are tempted to believe that this co-occurrence indicates some "endorsement by the world" of our inner product. I might even suggest that that is exactly the point of the exercise since all too often we are prepared to discount our unconscious products, our intuitions dreams and fantasies. We do do not value or heed them because we dismiss them lightly as "not real".

But every psychologist and for that matter, most self-reflective individuals will wryly admit that they are often pushed by their inner fears and fantasies to take real-world action for reasons that are not entirely conscious or fully willful.

Freudian Psychoanalyst, Gibbs Williams suggests that the impressive nature of synchronicities play a helpful role in permitting us to give credence to our psychic experiences and help us to give authority to our inner needs and desires. He proposes that the powerful experience of synchronicity leads to an expansion of consciousness via the incorporation of inner products and a resulting increase in felt creativeness. Williams suggests that this expansion facilitates many positive psychological transitions, among them a move from feeling under the influence of projected external authority to experiencing oneself as ones own final authority; passive experience to active responsiveness; black/white thinking to complexity and an over-reliance of linear logic to divergent thinking. This expansion creates an ensuing increase in flexibility, confidence and the sensation of personal freedom.

When do Synchronicities occur?

Williams describes the conditions which evoke the experience of meaning making around coincidence. He suggests that the phenomenon of Synchronicity tends to arise in psychological situations where the individual has perceived themselves to be caught in what feels to be an un-resolveable existential deadlock, for example when trapped between two mutually exclusive positions, states of mind or alternative choices. When a person in such a state of existential stasis moves from a state of resignation to a desire to actively struggle to find a way out of the dilemma they initiate a creative process within which what was experienced as existentially hopeless or unchangeable is now perceived as humanly problematic and resolvable.

The initial loosening of an internal deadlock might be caused by a number of factors, among them the supportive and encouraging influence of a therapeutic or other relationship, a significant change in real world circumstances for better or worse, or simply because the unconscious has autonomously addressed the difficulty and pushes for resolution "because it's time."

Williams distills it into a formula:

Psychological deadlock + Desire for a creative solution = Evocation of an organizing concept.

Within a well-defined statement of a problem there often lies an embedded solution.

In the same way, the unconscious psyche naturally and autonomously recognizes and struggles with the essence of the psychological deadlock. The unconsciously developed questions and attitudes define and refine the structure of the necessary "organizing concept" and subtly guide the real world search for a solution.

When the psychological situation is transformed into a "solvable problem" the mind is enabled to search for solutions using both conscious and unconscious processes. This results in what Williams describes as psychological "scavenger hunt" which takes place both inside the individual and outside as he scans the both worlds for helpful ideas. Cognitive researchers today will agree that one of the defining qualities of "unconscious" processing is its ability to make non-linear, non-rational connections; connections which are not based solely on cause and effect, but which may be connected by relationships of similarity, contiguity in time or space, or even by emotional qualities. The unconscious engages in a creative, multi-perspective, multi-level search for solutions which accesses a variety of streams of information such as ideas, feelings, intuitions and sensations and filters and examines them using the psychological, philosophical, physiological, scientific, spiritual, artistic, and political perspectives available to the individual.

When the unconscious begins to near some sort of creative resolution of the problem being addressed it will attempt to draw in conscious interest and reflection by searching for and highlighting symbolically meaningful material in the outer world. Just as human needs can be fulfilled in many different ways, solutions to psychological questions can be represented metaphorically in many ways as well and the symbolically representative situations chosen by the psyche are experienced by us as synchronicity... a connection between inner and outer realities. Consciousness must be involved in order to engage in directed action towards solutions. When consciousness refuses to engage with psyche and apply real world judgement, the "creative" solutions unconsciously proposed by the psyche may manifest themselves in the individual as pathologies: physical symptoms, addictions, obsessions, dissociations or other psychological problems.

Williams theorizes that synchronistic experiences may therefore be understood as pointing towards solutions to psychological problems which may still be pre-conscious but which are unconsciously well-developed enough to be available for decoding and understanding. He proposes that synchronicities therefore should be treated as "waking dreams" and investigated as indicators which point towards the resolution of psychological "deadlocks" or "complexes".

Synchronicities therefore do not need to be understood as occult phenomena but remain marvelous and mysterious nonetheless as examples of the continual interplay between conscious and unconscious thought and of the creative and self-healing capacities of the human psyche.


Williams, G. A. (1999) A Theory and Use of Meaningful Coincidences: Synchronicities.
Freud, S. (1919) The Uncanny. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII
Hollis, J. (2005). Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. New York, Gotham Books, p.191.

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