A Non-Statistician’s Approach to Coincidences (Part 5)
Coincidence finding is adaptive.
Co-authored by Tara MacIsaac, a reporter for the Epoch Times and editor for the Beyond Science section. She explores the new frontiers of science, delving into ideas that could help uncover the mysteries of our wondrous world.
We are sensitive to coincidences for good reason. Coincidences help us to see new patterns.
We seek patterns to navigate through space and time. Patterns provide maps for the territory of our lives—where to go, how to get there, what to say to whom. The surprise of coincidences raises a question: am I seeing a new pattern? At 11 p.m. on Feb. 26, 1973, when I was 31 years old, I suddenly found myself bent over the kitchen sink in an old Victorian house on Hayes Street in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. I was choking on something caught in my throat. I couldn’t cough it up. I hadn’t eaten anything. I didn’t know what was in my throat. I’d never choked for this long before. Finally, after 15 minutes or so, I could swallow and breathe normally. The next day, my birthday, my brother called to tell me that my father had died in Wilmington, Del., at 2 a.m. EST. He was 3,000 miles and three time zones away; 2 a.m. in Wilmington was 11 p.m. in California. My father had bled into his throat and choked on his own blood at about the same time I was uncontrollably choking. He died on Feb. 27, my birthday. (from Connecting with Coincidence) The timing was too tight for me to think it was “just random.”
My research at the University of Missouri-Columbia and the work of psychiatrist Ian Stevenson make it clear that many other people have experienced similar correlations in time. I named this pattern “simulpathity”—the experience of the pain of a loved one at a distance. One dramatic, surprising coincidence became a clue to the existence of a new pattern. One of the participants in my coincidence study at the University of Missouri-Columbia told this story about her near suicide:
“There was a very dark period in my late teens, a confused time to say the least. I cannot explain the rationalization, or rather, I should state, there was none. I couldn’t seem to withstand all the suffering in the world ... and one afternoon, I took my dad’s gun, got in my car, and drove to an isolated place on the lake. The intention was to end my own life. I sat there, with gun in hand, without truly understanding why ... It was if I didn’t have any clue how I managed to arrive at this moment in time. But, as tears slowly came down my cheeks, I heard the sound of another car pulling up beside [me] ... and my brother stepped out of the car, asking me to hand him the gun. “I was breathless; I was totally shocked. All I could do is to ask him how on Earth he knew I was feeling this way; how did he know I even had this gun, and, most important, how did he find me? He said he had no answers. He didn’t have any idea why he got into his car; he didn’t know where he was driving, nor why he was going there; or what he was supposed to do when he arrived.” How did her brother know that she needed him? What made him make these complex decisions without a conscious intention? He seemed drawn to his sister by her distress, without consciously knowing that she was about to kill herself.
Subsequently, I began to think of this as simulpathity coupled with an uncanny knowledge about where she was and how to get there. Many similar stories led me to hypothesize the idea of human GPS—that we can find our way sometimes to people, ideas and things we need without knowing how we got there. (from Chapter 1, Connecting with Coincidence)
Coincidence detection is no anomaly of the human mind. Through reading and research, I could confirm that my experience with my father was no anomaly. It was an example of something frequently experienced. Coincidence recognition is part of a rational process for finding new patterns. Magda Osman, a senior lecturer in experimental psychology at Queen Mary University of London, wrote in a Scientific American article: “Searching for patterns is essential to our cognition and survival, and the cost of not having this ability far out weights the false paths we take when we see patterns that aren’t there. If we observe a pattern then we have detected a regularity in the world, and a regularity is likely to have a causal basis. We can use this regularity to make a prediction, and if we can predict, we can control future events more reliably–to our great advantage.” (Osman) Coincidences drive the search for causal explanations because we need to understand how the world works.