Quantified coincidences


Crosswalk at Plaza Castilla (Madrid)

I love coincidences, maybe too much. I’ve been meaning to quantify them for a while, but I don’t have too many. As I mentioned in a previous blog, Douglas Coupland says that, on average we have one “wow” coincidence per year, sometimes less, sometimes more. I thought that my life-logging efforts could increase their frequency, so this is a bit of a story about that.

I began thinking about this several weeks ago after reading an article in the Atlantic by Julie Beck, entitled “Coincidences and the meaning of life“. She reviews different recent books on the topic and mentions a web page by David Spiegelhalter to collect stories of coincidences. That may interest some of you, although she concludes that we like our own coincidences, and most people are a bit bored by other people’s coincidences, like when someone tells you about their great dream last night. We listen, but are not as enthused as they are.

Julie Beck also interviewed Dr. Beitman, a psychiatrist who wants to begin a new field of “Coincidence studies“. He wrote a paper on that, where he suggests we can categorise types of coincidences into four areas (synchronicity, serendipity, seriality and simulpathy), which are all interesting, but no room to go into more depth here…

In his introduction, Bietman suggests that our awareness of coincidences is increasing by advancements in technology and increased availability of information. So, do I have more with a life-log?

Theoretically I could use notes and photos from my past as a time machine to pull out coincidences, finding patterns between events in the past or surprising connections between the past and the present. So I went back and scanned my narrative photos from four days in the past, a recent day, 02/03/2016, compared with about a month ago 02/02/2016 and 24/01/2016 and in October last year (26/10/2015). Conclusion, it was quite difficult to find any “wow” coincidences.

While looking at the photos of the most recent day (02/03/2016), I felt myself motivated to write down some things that I found interesting or new, like “oh, that was the day that new fertilizer was placed on the grass outside”. I noticed people on the sidewalk, or that I had to wait at the crosswalk. Compared to the other three days in the past, there were lots of coincident places and activities, but they lacked the element of surprise (same background activities of eat, work and play, surrounding family and co-workers, living in the same house).

So, not really exciting, I will probably have to look at more days to find more coincidences. BUT, what I found most interesting about the exercise was how I felt afterwards. After reviewing all these photos, early in the morning, I began to think about how my mental activity was similar, every day. While making breakfast that morning, I began to realize that many of my thoughts were similar to previous days. When I get the kids up for school, I often wonder what to talk with them about at breakfast (not that I’m being examined, but I often try to think of topics of conversation that would be more stimulating to them, and for me). I consistenly think about changing up the breakfast menu and making it more varied (it’s normally quite standard, see my quantified food exercise). I could swear that those same thoughts were going through my head on all those other three days, in the not-so-distant past, and probably every morning. So the search for coincidences led me to realize how similar my thought process are every morning, probably even more similar than the outside images the narrative takes. Those are not “wow” coincidences, but the wow is still there, surprise that I go through those same processes every day and not get bored!

Friends and coincidences

In order to try to corroborate this “one wow coincidence a year” idea, I’ve also been asking friends and family about their coincidences. Most of them tell me stories about surprising simultaneous events involving meeting someone they know in an unlikely place (in a crowded place downtown, on vacation in another city). Other stories are about uncanny patterns (seriality), seeing the same thing over and over again, as if you are more sensitive to something and see it everywhere (if your wife is pregnant, you see many more pregnant women). I wrote down their coincidences and found that the ones I liked the most had to do with travel. I also got the general idea that wow-coincidences are really quite few and far between, and as Douglas Coupland says, they are quite democratic, anyone can have them, which is nice.

Finally, I didn’t know this, but Julie Beck, in her article, notes that coincidences are more attractive to certain types of people than others. I thought that everyone liked them! It’s true that some people do not seem to remember or seem too interested when I bring up the topic (maybe they are mathematicians who dismiss all coincidence as statistics!). Apparently the people who really enjoy coincidences are more self-referential, they relate outside information directly to themselves. Yep, that sounds like me. It does seem kind of magical, but coincidences are an important way of how I make sense of all the incoming info. If you want to tell me yours, I’ll promise to listen attentively.



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