As a master’s student studying paranormal beliefs and parapsychology some 15 years ago, Christian Rominger stumbled upon a paper by Paola Bressan about “meaningful coincidences” and why they might happen.
“What really caught my attention about meaningful coincidences is that they’re different from other paranormal ideas and phenomena. They’re tied closely to our behaviors and actions,” Rominger explains. “I strongly believe that when we find meaning in events happening together, it’s a basic trait of beings to perceive a cause-and-effect relationship. What makes meaningful coincidences unique is that they connect our inner thoughts to external events, like a thought lining up with something in the real world. This is a fundamental learning principle, which comes into play ”
Intrigued by the paper, Rominger translated Bressan’s questionnaire into German and began exploring the phenomenon himself. Now at the University of Graz, Rominger has led a new study on meaningful coincidences, just published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Using EEG to explore how people perceive meaningful coincidences with their eyes open and shut, he and his colleagues found a connection between the perception of these coincidences and sensory activity in the brain – finding that people who experience more coincidences show greater increases in alpha power when their eyes are closed.
I spoke with Rominger about these findings and their significance, including in a clinical context, as well as next steps for this line of work.
“There are many real-life examples of meaningful coincidences, and we’ve identified at least seven categories of coincidences. A common example is when we think of a friend and they call us at that exact moment, or when a dream we’ve had comes true.”
CNS: What were you hoping to accomplish with the new study?
Rominger: The study aimed to show that meaningful coincidences aren’t just because our thinking is different, but also because of more basic sensory differences. We wondered if certain simple brain activities linked to our senses might be connected to experiencing meaningful coincidences. We focused on something called “alpha power increase” when we close our eyes, which could mean some parts of our brain are shutting down temporarily. This increase in alpha power could be a sign of this shutdown. And guess what? We discovered that people who experienced more coincidences had a bigger increase in alpha power when closing their eyes.
Interestingly, meaningful coincidences are a subtype of apophenia, which means finding patterns in random things – a bit like seeing faces in random shapes (like pareidolia). This adds another layer of fascination to the whole topic and shows potential connection with other important and fascinating concepts such as fantasy, mind wandering, or creativity. “Meaningful coincidences” is also coined synchronicity and is used in therapeutic settings.
CNS: What is a real-world example of the type of meaningful patterns you are exploring in people’s experiences?
Rominger: There are many real-life examples of meaningful coincidences, and we’ve identified at least seven categories of coincidences. A common example is when we think of a friend and they call us at that exact moment, or when a dream we’ve had comes true.
Currently, we’re conducting daily diary studies where we ask people if they’ve experienced any meaningful coincidences during the day. Interestingly, when we take the results of these studies seriously, it appears that many participants encounter meaningful coincidences at some point in their week as they go about their lives.
CNS: Were there any novel techniques/approaches in your study that you would like to highlight?
Rominger: The special thing about this study is that the method we used has been around as long as EEG itself, which is pretty neat. We used a task-related design, which isn’t really new, but it’s great for directly comparing brain activity changes between different situations. In our case, we looked at the difference between having eyes open and eyes closed.
CNS: Why have some participants with their eyes open and some with eyes shut?
Rominger: In our study, we used a within-subjects design, meaning each participant experienced both conditions: eyes open and eyes closed. This was important because it let us observe how the brain activity changes when moving from having eyes open to closing them. When participants had their eyes closed, there was almost no visual input reaching their eyes, which caused sensory areas of the brain to “shut down” because they weren’t needed for the task. This means alpha power increases in these areas. This approach helped us see how the brain reacts when we switch between these two states: eyes open and eyes closed, more and less visual input.
I am convinced that exploring the open eyes and closed eyes resting state in the future could yield valuable and significant insights. This straightforward experimental setup has the potential to uncover important connections with personality traits and cognitive abilities. However, there’s still a need for more fundamental research to fully understand the exact significance of alpha power oscillations in the brain during eyes-closed states.
CNS: What do you most want people to understand about this study?
Rominger: The experience of meaningful coincidences is something normal, tied to how we understand cause and effect, and even our imagination and creativity. But it can also be taken to an extreme, associated with mental conditions like schizophrenia. It’s important to view the study’s findings on this spectrum.
The things we found in the brain’s activity might suggest a connection between general brain functions, like the increase in alpha power when closing our eyes, and meaningful coincidences. This connection is quite significant because alpha power changes are connected to important processes that help our brains inhibit or control information, including things like working memory, holding onto information, and even creative thinking.
CNS: What’s next for this line of work?
Rominger: From my perspective, I’m curious if the experience of meaningful coincidences goes beyond just differences in how our brain works when it comes to sensory perceptions or basic visual processes. I’m interested in exploring positive traits connected to this phenomenon. Some research suggests that people who have more meaningful coincidences might also have higher life satisfaction and more creativity. As such, I’m working on a study to see if individuals who report more meaningful coincidences also engage in a greater number of creative activities and accomplishments. This direction seems promising for future research.
In terms of study design, I’m considering reaching out to a more diverse range of participants in future studies. This would help us generalize our findings, as much of our current research relies on young (often female) students. Expanding our participant pool could lead to more comprehensive insights.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz