Breaking Down Coincidence
“A coincidence is a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection,” is how two mathematicians, Persi Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller, defined coincidence in 1989, after a long and exhaustive battle with the definition.
Mathematicians generally believe that any meaning we assign to coincidences mostly originates from our universal inability to understand numbers, combined with human bias. Three types of bias, in particular.
One: Story Bias
Ever since we built the first campfire, we’ve also assigned a narrative to completely random escapades. Stories with decent plot points get more listeners. We like to hear stuff like, “the buffalo came to graze at dawn to bless a great hunting season,” especially when we’re famished.
Two: Hindsight Bias
A person I just thought about seems to beam down in front of me a short moment later while standing in a coffee queue. Now, what is the likelihood of that? According to mathematicians, it’s pretty much inevitable when you calculate probability after the fact which, the same mathematicians’ state, is a cognitive malfunction.
Three: Finite Sample Bias
Take Joe, who flips 20 coin heads in a single stretch which his friends calculate is a one-in-a-million coincidence. The bartender baptizes Joe as the Chosen One. His buddies dress him in an emperor’s kimono. Joe’s cousin Pete, a mathematician, on the other hand, is confident that Joe’s “magic wrist” is as full of charm as a can of Spam, when studied in a broad enough data set.
With seven billion people processing an average of 70,000 thoughts and 35,000 actions per day, for example, the only real miracle is the scarcity of coincidences.
This is what I used to think about coincidences, too, before I started getting locked up by seemingly sentient door handles and elevators.
My Affair With An Elevator
The cellphone was dead, the GPS was toast, the horizon dimmed under a barrage of storm clouds, and the tank was almost empty when I finally pulled over to a gas station – only to realize that it was abandoned.
One of the rusty gas pumps swallowed a $20 note and spat out a few gallons before hanging dry. Mildly relieved, I went to pee in a steel shack at the back of the station, when the door slammed behind me with a metallic and definitive “clank!”
I tried the handle with several, increasingly desperate yanks. Next, I threw sidekicks at it, but the door had somehow locked itself with a steel bolt from the outside, in the middle of nowhere, in a rare poltergeist event.
Full disclosure: I am mildly claustrophobic since my pajama times.
I vetted the situation, almost wetting myself. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Instead of figuring an exit plan, I saw my skeleton sitting on the toilet like the statue of The Thinker, the bronze sculpture.
That’s where the film cuts off.
The sound of an alarm clock woke me up. I jumped out of bed and wiped a frosty sweat off my forehead. I decompressed for a few minutes, took a cold shower, and archived the dream into the piggy bank of bad trips.
I had a busy day ahead of me. I packed my bags for travel, checked out of the apartment, and walked into a tiny 1920s elevator, looking forward to a fresh breeze of people and vibes when I heard the sound again.
This time I was stuck in a mechanical sarcophagus, a Bauhaus elevator year model 1918, stuck between floors. I was barely able to fit in this contraption with my luggage. I pressed the alarm button and got a pre-recorded message that sounded like it was recorded shortly after WWII. The technicians would respond to my distress “at the earliest convenience.”
What were the odds of another entrapment within 60 minutes of the dream-induced lockdown?
There was no point assigning meaning to the coincidence since I was probably a victim of all three major human biases at the same time. Instead, I flipped out. Again. For the second time that morning. I entered a blizzard, a hormonal hallucination that comes with the sudden escalation of adrenaline.
I pried the elevator doors open with bloody fingertips, grunting like a distressed gorilla until I was able to climb to the upper floor.
After the stress hormones settled, I dusted off and decided to forget about the affair. I had a transatlantic flight to catch. Later, after I settled down in Lufthansa seat 36B, an insane question began to preoccupy my frontal lobe.
Could my subconscious – triggered by a synchronistic nightmare – have influenced the spinning wheels of a Bauhaus-era elevator with some type of mind-over-matter trickery?
Yes, Even Chicks Can Bend Metal
A group of Princeton University psychologists, from the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) laboratory, spent four decades trying to figure out the answer.
Can human intention influence a machine?
PEAR created a virtual coin flipping game and asked the participants to press the button with an intention. They used radioactive decay and white noise inside electromagnetically shielded Random Event Generators (REGs) to generate perfectly random coin flips and robots to tabulate the results, to avoid human bias.
Over 800 experiments, 91 researchers, and 2.6 million data points later, the results were clear.
The power of intention had about one percent influence over a mechanical coin toss, with a one-in-a-trillion chance that the effect was due to pure coincidence.
The numbers shook up the statisticians at the U.S. National Research Agency in 2000, whose job was to verify the data. The Princeton University faculty tried to bury the results for fear of ridicule. Princeton didn’t want to be associated with woo-woo. But by then, the news was out.
Let’s think about the one percent, the possibility that a subtle but persistent intention has over classical reality.
One percent doesn’t like much, but what if it is cumulative, able to sew the future together one thread at a time?
In 50-50 type situations, it could flip the scale in the short-term. For example, if you have an intention to heal, or not, and you’re hovering in the twilight.
The PEAR researchers dug deeper, driven by a Kafkaesque zeal.
They clad a mobile Random Event Generator in a chicken suit and imprinted baby chicks to its appearance. The “Mother Hen” was programmed to navigate randomly around the baby chicks to see if the chicks could influence a machine.
The chicks ruled.
The feather balls chirped at the ersatz mother in a way that made the machine swerve back to base one percent more than would be statistically or mechanically possible without some type of mind-over-matter Jedi pull.
Jedi chicks. Imagine that. Could the same force explain my Bauhaus elevators and door handles?
The Door Handle Affair
Two days after the elevator affair, I encountered a suspicious door in my friend’s L.A. apartment.
The door to the guest bedroom was locked, even though it supposedly had no lock.
“There’s not even a key for that door, because there is no lock,” my friend’s text message confirmed.
Still, locked it was.
Jetlagged, I stuck a screwdriver into the handle and jiggled carefully until the entire thing rotated off. It was a clear act of demolition that gave me what I wanted. A bed. I could always explain the demolition to my friend later.
I crashed with the door wide open.
At 5.30 am, I got up and headed for the bathroom, but encountered an unexpected obstacle. The bedroom door was locked. Again. This time from the outside.
I stared at the handle for a minute or two with sleepy dust in my eyes. I could as well have stared at a reincarnated mummy. I reached out for kinetic confirmation, a second time. Yup, the handle felt firmer than even before the previous evening’s (hard) break-in. It felt more robust than a bank vault handle, made in Switzerland.
There are 300 million people in the United States. Ergo, it would make statistical sense to expect at least 300 one-in-a-million coincidences per day. I sat down on the bed – after peeing in a mug – and pondered if I was one of the 300.
I remembered another story from my research after the elevator incident. A woman who won the New Jersey Lottery twice in four months had reportedly beat the odds of one in 17 trillion. Two statisticians from Purdue University reappraised the numbers by rephrasing the question with a broader data set. Her winning was practically a sure thing in a data set that covered the entire United States, they concluded.
The lock that reconstructed itself to detain me in yet another claustrophobic nightmare was also probably just a “sure thing” in a sufficiently large data set. I just didn’t know what that data set was.
I was on the third floor, too high to jump out. There was no ledge to Buster Keaton myself unto another window. I had no phone inside the room. My friend was traveling for at least three days. The more I looked at options for exiting the room, the more it smelled of Guantanamo.
I tried my best sidekick. No budge. I opened one of the windows and yelled for help. A mother of three children was the first to turn around. Incredibly, she hauled all three of her combative children into my friend’s house. After ten minutes of rattling the door handle, she said she was late for work. She slid my phone under the door and scrammed.
It took another two hours before a locksmith arrived to work the door. But even he got stuck with some diabolical nonsense.
“This door has peculiar qualities,” he shouted after 20 minutes of wriggling.
“No, really? Why do you think that?” I mumbled at him through the wall.
When the door finally relented, I flew out of the casket like Phoenix, reassembling myself from ashes, determined never to get trapped again.
What the hell was going on with the world’s elevators and door handles?
Suspect: The Zero Point Field
I had a few more situations like that over the next few weeks. Not as bad but still. Public toilets were the worst. They had a nearly 80% lock failure rate, I calculated.
After the third or fourth self-incarceration, I began to treat doors as sentient beings that could flip out at any moment.
I had a phase also that I’m embarrassed to admit. I caught myself blocking doors with bathroom towels before I crashed in a new Airbnb. I decided that my behavior was not sustainable. I had to get to the root of the problem.
It was time for the trickster god to come out.
Richard P. Feynman, the theoretical physicist, said that “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool,” a good description of my situation. Feynman’s domain of quantum physics happens to be closest to explaining my self-entrapment algorithm.
The Zero Point Field, aka ZPF, is a quantum field theory that some physicists believe could explain mind-over-matter influence.
For classical physicists, the ZPF is a vacuum state with the lowest possible energy at a temperature of absolute zero (–273.15 degrees Celsius or −459.659 Fahrenheit). Nothing moves in this temperature. However, since the particles also exhibit wave-like behavior, even completely cooled down particles manifest as waves.
For some more progressive quantum physicists, ZPF wave interaction could imply a non-local and non-temporal, unified field that is inextricably linked with both our conscious and material experience.
The theoretical physicist Paul Dirac said that particle fields could also be influenced by mental states that affect the particle’s spin, mass, charge, and momentum, implying that matter springs from mind, rather than vice versa.
Andrei Sakharov, Russian nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate, proposed that ZPF also influences relativistic phenomena – like slowing down of clocks near the speed of light – with charged particles that interact with the ZPF.
Felix Franks of the University of Cambridge, who studied the relationship between water and the ZPF, said that water’s uniquely flexible molecular structure is explained by its ZPF interaction, which is interesting since we’re 70 percent water.
The Hungarian theoretician Ervin Laszlo Gazdag wrote that all particles have a magnetic momentum that interacts with the ZPF with wave interference patterns that contain every thought, emotion, action – present, past, and future – of the universe, like a giant holographic memory bank.
“Thoughts make waves,'” wrote Ervin,” an information-carrying field that informs and interacts with not just the current universe, but all universes past and present.”
Rudolf Steiner’s description of the Akashic Records is spookily close to Ervin’s description of the grand information field.
How is this relevant?
Here’s how the ZPF a.k.a. Akashic Records a.k.a. Grand Unifying Field, a.k.a. Information Field could explain how my mind messes with elevators and door handles and how baby chicks lure robots.
According to Laszlo and his colleagues, our minds interact with the ZPF on at least three levels: conscious, unconscious, and subconscious.
The subconscious, which controls 95 percent of our waking reality, by implication also dominates the ZPF interaction. And since the subconscious is composed mostly of impressions that we recorded by age six, most of what we manifest via the zero point field could happen through the emotional filtering of our childhood experiences.
This theory began to make twisted sense to me. By locking me inside random places, my kid version was asking his senior to deal with his actual issues, like fear.
I took the theory seriously enough to try and understand the energy of claustrophobia, how it rolls through the body and mind with subtle physical and emotional clues. I became aware of its nature, a field influence that I had previously tried to suppress.
Soon after, something happened.
I was on a hike up a mountain, the least probable spot in the world to become claustrophobic when I could suddenly feel a wave of anxiety. Instead of trying to control the wave, I observed its flow. I kept walking and breathing through the emotion. Then, I began to see images.
I was maybe a three-month-old fetus inside my mother. My mother sat on the back chair of a Beechcraft twin-engine aircraft, piloted by my father. I felt what she felt while squeezed between the seats. A heavy charge, like molten lead with a thousand volts, moved through her body, looking for an exit.
It was the frequency of fear.
I sat on a tree stump and removed my shoes. The soggy ground felt electric as I curled my toes in the dirt. In ten seconds, the “lead” poured out. The day brightened almost instantly. I felt lighter, clearer, positively recharged.
Here is the odd thing.
After the hiking episode, the door handles and elevators began to comply with me. No more lockdowns, no more misbehaving sarcophaguses. Even after the COVID-19 shutdown, the world’s doors feel like they just opened, although most of them just closed.
Maybe, just maybe, I managed to release some type of long-term, negative charge.
Fear, like any negative emotion, is also an electromagnetic field that sticks to our bones and ligaments. It activates our stress hormones, which we’re already addicted to, and then encourages behavior and perception that produces the reward chemistry. If this is based on an old, subconsciously programmed pattern, it can stay with us for a lifetime, influencing almost everything we do and decide – unless we become conscious of it.
The key in this process was to observe the energy without trying to suppress or discount it, which in my case became possible only after several mechanical contraptions rebelled against my normal flow.
Was the series of sporadic lockdowns a pure coincidence that I interpreted as a sign to deal with my angsts, or did my subconscious have a hand in orchestrating them via intention?
The latter would imply an entirely different kind of universe than what we have been taught. One that shapeshifts incrementally by taking clues from our intention. One that is unique to each observer. A bit like children’s play-dough.
That’s a much more interesting universe than the cold and dark space where no one here’s you scream, where life assembles itself from chaos, against all the odds.
Life, it seems, is an unlikely coincidence.
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