Coincidence Theory


December 14, 2003


ore than half of Americans believe in ''anomalous phenomena'' like clairvoyance, unexplained coincidence, prayer healing and psychokinesis. Yet mainstream science remains unconvinced. After all, these anomalies appear to fly in the face of everything we know about how mind and matter interact. But that may be about to change. This year, Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, introduced a conceptual model to explain seemingly inexplicable events scientifically.

In 1991, Mayer had her own brush with the anomalous. She was searching for a stolen family possession and, on a dare, turned for help to a man 800 miles away who claimed to be psychic. To her astonishment, he was able to tell her precisely where to find the missing object. Mayer wanted a scientific explanation, and she embarked on a decade of research.

Mayer's research and writings eventually led her to Robert G. Jahn, a science and engineering professor at Princeton. Since 1979, Jahn had amassed a mountain of data demonstrating people's ability to alter the outcome of a random event generator -- essentially a machine designed to replicate a perfect coin toss over and over -- in a minute but statistically significant way.

Comparing the latest research from the fields of neuroscience, psychoanalytic psychology and quantum physics, Mayer and Jahn found some intriguing overlaps. Just as psychologists have spent the last century exploring the unconscious mind, physicists have been exploring that netherworld of physics called intangible dynamics, where string theory and quantum mechanics lurk. Both of these shadow realms violate our everyday understanding of logic and physics, space and time.

Jahn and Mayer say they believe that anomalous phenomena may be a result of some type of information exchange between the unconscious and the intangible. ''Clairvoyance'' may actually be snippets of information from the physical world slipping into the unconscious mind and percolating up into awareness. Moving in the opposite direction, the unconscious mind may have the ability to subtly alter the physical world, explaining Jahn's data using random event generators.

For now, the model is more a way to think about the problem of anomalous phenomena than a solution. ''Though we're still far from having evidence which proves it correct,'' Mayer notes in a public lecture she began giving this year, ''we can find tantalizing grounds on which to find it appealing.''