“Coincidence” is powerful “evidence” to many people

Observation:

I was closing a spreadsheet, and the moment I clicked on the “X” to close the window, a dialog box popped up on my other monitor, and I thought “Oh, what did I just do?”

The dialog box was simply an alert, letting me know that I have to attend a meeting in 15 minutes. And so I then thought “Oh, OK, it’s not connected to me closing the spreadsheet.” And I went on about my business.

But note what happened.

I saw two events close in time, that initially appeared to be related. Sometimes when you close windows you get a dialog saying “do you want to save?” or some other helpful suggestion related to what you just did, or are doing, with the window you’re working in.

In the background, my brain is aware that such things are sometimes related, and without conscious thought, I knee-jerked to check to see if there was a connection between the dialog box and closing the spreadsheet. My brain is used to this pattern. And it checks to see if this pattern is in play, when it recognizes something that resembles this pattern. If it recognizes no connection between the two events, it notes that they are just unrelated events occurring close in time. And I go on, and give it no relevance.

But sometimes the events are related. As noted—maybe I would click the “X” to close, and the dialog would come up saying “Do you want to save?” It’s a reminder that is triggered by me trying to close the spreadsheet. And I am consciously aware that such reminders occur—and I’m also aware of it in part of my brain that isn’t conscious. In fact, it’s the non-conscious neural map that informs “me” (the conscious aspect of the brain) that “Hey, these things may be related.”

But sometimes we have two events, closely related in time, that have no such trigger—no such causal connection—but our brains find a pattern, anyway. This is what we call “coincidence.” The difference between what happened to me this morning, and a coincidence, is that with a coincidence, the brain is able to identify a pattern—but it’s not a pattern based on causal link. The two events aren’t actually objectively related—they simply have related meaning in the brain of the person observing.

So, you are going home after your mother’s funeral, and you find yourself behind a car, and the numbers on the plate happen to match her birthday month and day—and your brain says “that’s related to mom—who just died.” On another day, you might see that same tag and assign nothing meaningful to it. But today, mom is on your mind, and so, these DMV assigned numbers are “mom’s birthday.” And to some people, additionally, “a message from mom.”

It’s stunning how powerful coincidental meaning can be in the minds of observers. I would say that it’s a pattern in TAE e-mail for people to describe a coincidence and ask us “how do you explain this?” Above, is how I explain it. But that’s not what they’re asking. What they honestly mean is “how did my mom’s birthday end up on this tag right after her funeral?” They want an explanation of the objective event–they want to know objectively how the events are related. The problem is that, objectively, there is no reason to think they are. They are connected in the subject’s mind. And that is all the connection anyone can reasonably derive from that observation. But some people simply cannot accept this. It’s a difficult thing for many people to accept.