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American Imago 59.4 (2002) 409-434

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Synchronicity and Emergence

Joseph Cambray


Scientific reconsideration of C. G. Jung's difficult, fascinating, and peculiar idea of synchronicity, which he believed to represent an acausal connecting principle, has become possible with the advent of recent developments in understanding the self-organizing features of complex adaptive systems (CAS). In particular, the question of acausality in "meaningful" coincidences, especially those observed in the clinical setting, can be reassessed in terms of the concept of emergence, which explores holistic phenomena supervening from interactions among component agents.

That the present moment is a timely one for reexamining synchronicity is borne out by the response of Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer to a questionnaire published in the January 2002 issue of the Journal of Analytical Psychology (JAP). The questionnaire is part of an ongoing dialogue between psychoanalysts and analytical psychologists that JAP has fostered for the past six years. Designed for comparative purposes, this questionnaire bears some resemblance to one published in Psychoanalytic Dialogues (Fosshage and Davies 2000), which consisted of responses by analytical psychologists, though the subject of synchronicity was not addressed there. For the JAP special issue, arrangements were made with eight psychoanalysts, representing a spectrum of orientations, who agreed to prepare answers for publication. Mayer, a training analyst in San Francisco, was the only respondent to express an interest in, as well as knowledge of, Jung's writings on synchronicity.

In her article, Mayer (2002) suggests that Freudian and Jungian views of reality are well-poised at this juncture to enter into "a wider scientific and cultural conversation . . . where [End Page 409] some of the most lively and critically important questions about people and their relationship with the world are currently being asked" (92). In her view, this dialogue centers on the way that an extensive range of phenomena—both physical and psychological—are being reconceptualized as "separate and separable versus connected and inseparable." She goes on to suggest that "Freudians have developed a view of the mind which . . . elaborates implications of its separateness and its unequivocally boundaried character," whereas Jungians have "elaborated implications of the mind's connectedness: the nature of its quintessentially unboundaried character."

In articulating what she believes to be the core elements of these distinctive approaches to the mind, Mayer singles out the understanding of the transference, which, "perhaps more than anything else, dramatically manifests the individual boundaried mind in action," as the clinical tool par excellence of psychoanalysis. In contrast, she locates the genius of the Jungian school in its attention to "the collective mind and what we might call the profoundly connected mind" (92).

An interest in the limits of connectedness leads Mayer to the notion of synchronicity, which she aligns with the contemporary turn in many disciplines to revalue the subjective, relational, and intersubjective aspects of reality. As she notes, "the concept of synchronicity emerges from a model of the mind characterized by a radical connectedness between minds and also between minds and matter, placing the human mind in a field characterized by interactive possibilities that simply occupy no conceptual place in Freud's psychology of the individual" (93).

Although Mayer in other papers has written on seemingly anomalous mental effects in clinical encounters (1996a; 2001) and changing scientific paradigms informing psychoanalysis (1996b; 2000), she has not explicitly reassessed synchronicity in light of these concerns. Her focus has been on models of interaction in science, philosophy, and medicine that argue for the mind's role in shaping reality. On the other hand, most efforts by Jungians to consider synchronicity from a scientific perspective have been closely tied to Jung's own examinations of the interface between twentieth-century physics and his psychological theories. 1 In short, despite occasional remarks [End Page 410] suggesting links between synchronicity and chaos theory (e.g., Main 1997, 26), no one from either the Freudian or the Jungian side has systematically pursued this line of inquiry. Even more productive considerations can be derived from a reconsideration of the intersubjective aspects of the synchronicity hypothesis in light of the present understanding of CAS. Application of the findings from these converging...


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