One of the conditions conducive to synchronistic phenomena are affect-loaded states of the subject. How does this work?
1. We can start with a commonplace observation: affect-loaded states, that is, when we “become emotional”, tend to change the balance between conscious control and unconscious drive. Thus Jung observes:
Every emotional state causes a change in consciousness, which Janet called “abaissement du niveau mental”, i.e. a narrowing of consciousness together with a strengthening of the unconscious. […] Thus consciousness is influenced by unconscious, instinctive drives and contents.
[Die Dynamik des Unbewußten, GW VIII, 486; my translation.]
The balance between consciousness and the unconscious is more complex and subtle, of course, than the mere contrast between the two terms suggests. It is never just “either/or”, that is, simply a matter of either full and clear conscious control or a total “takeover” from the unconscious. Rather, the comparative strength of influence from each side can fluctuate and waver, and generally the unconscious might affect some perceptions and actions of the subject more, and others less. This is what Jung captures in his nuanced terms of a narrowing of consciousness on the one hand, and a strengthening of the unconscious on the other.
Moreover, instead of the the rather simplistic “above vs. below the water line” picture, where consciousness would be anything “above”, and the rest (“below”) simply unconscious, we might well take consciousness to be a matter of degree, distributed over multiple levels. This would mean a hierarchy with comparatively clear and stable consciousness levels further up, and fewer and weaker conscious contents mixed with more dimmed perceptions under stronger unconscious influence further down. Given such a picture, any drop from a higher level to a lower one, no matter where in the hierarchy they are located, would fit the description of a “narrowing of consciousness” and “strengthening of the unconscious”, though in which ways and to what degrees would depend on the particular levels. This, of course, is what Jung points to, briefly, with his reference to Pierre Janet and his notion of niveaux mentales. (The hierarchy is described and explained in this very helpful article by John Ryan Haule.)
Precisely which mental niveaus are in play when a subject enters an emotional (affect-loaded) state would need some closer analysis. For our purposes here, however, it is enough to note that, if emotional states are conducive to synchronistic phenomena, that would be so because they frequently induce a drop to a lower niveau mentale, and thus allow the unconscious to take over (some) control.
2. Why would a situation where the influence of unconscious drives is increased (potentially) lead to synchronistic phenomena? To build an account of how this happens, we need two explore two hypotheses. The first is that unconscious drives and contents might manifest “from without”; the second (which I’m going to deal with in a later post) is that such manifestation “from without” can be coordinated with what synchronistic events are defined to be, i.e. unlikely, but meaningful, coincidences.
What, then, does it mean that the unconscious produces contents which manifest “from without”?
In his already mentioned article, Haule provides a case in which this is a feature. He notes that the subject is afraid that personal development (an engagement with unconscious parts of himself) might “seduce him out of his ‘faith’”, i.e. some rigidly held beliefs which are in this case of the religious variety, and then goes on to explain that
[s]o strictly does he ‘censor’ every expression of the unconscious coming from within (e.g. by waking up before a fifth-level dream [i.e. one shaped by the personal unconscious] can reach resolution) that the deep unconscious can only speak to him from ‘without’. Thus he finds himself in a highly synchronistic world where, for example, a passage from the morning’s scripture readings is paraphrased in the next night’s sexual encounter, or where the dream-figure answers his newspaper advertisement for a room-mate to share the rent. These exteral manifestations of the fourth mental level [roughly, the level of the collective unconscious] are as much outside his personal responsibility as are the archetypal dreams. Therefore he does not find them to be as threatening as a completed personal dream.
John R. Haule, “Archetype and Integration: Roots of Analytical Psychology” (my emphasis).
The synchronistic events are here classified roughly alongside what Jung calls “big dreams”, i.e. those where contents appear in the myth-like, symbolic imagery shaped by the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Haule describes them as a form of communication from the unconscious to the subject; so this is exactly what I have called the first hypothesis above.
The basic criterion for the “from without” characterization is that the subject experiences the contents as events he encounters in the outside world (as compared to dream images, which he encounters in an inner dream world). They may show up in similarities between what other people say and do (“a passage from the morning’s scripture reading is paraphrased in the next night’s sexual encounter”); the relevant event then consists in, first, the similarity actually occurring, and secondly, the subject noticing it. Or they may show up in person, as it were: if real people (first) actually enter his life whose importance the subject then (secondly) notices. In both forms, the latter is important: it becomes a “strange, synchronistic event” only when the subject attends to it as such, and perceives some meaning in it.
To put flesh on the bones of the first hypothesis, we might thus say that the unconscious communicates to the subject “from without” by, first, arranging the actual world to contain some encounters with similarities or personalities that suit its (the unconscious drive’s) purpose, and then by making the subject become aware of those similarities or personalities as such.
3. Now this formulation at which we have just arrived will probably raise eyebrows and provocate incredulous stares. How can the uncoscious “arrange” for circumstances in the outer world?
Well, some of the incredulity is probably produced by the overly dramatic wording I have chosen. (Which, of course, I have done intentionally, in order to make the current point.) Instead of claiming that the unconscious “arranges” for similarities to happen to a subject, we might assume that such similarities are there all the time — one can always find similarities if one merely looks close enough for them. The whole thing then would boil down mostly to selective perception (the phenomenon that you suddenly notice how the streets are full of Toyotas after you have seriously considered buying one, reading up on the different models, closing in on a type you like, etc.)
For the reductionistically-minded, this would probably take most of the sting out of the hypothesis. Personally I think that this can only account for some, but not all of the phenomenon, which of course leaves us (as far as the reductionistically-minded are concerned), back at square one.
On the other side of the spectrum of opinions, the mystically-minded among us will probably welcome the notion of a force in the unconscious which has the power to arrange events in the outside world, and which is not brought well into focus in our most current, rational thought about reality. That is because such a notion fits an intuition mankind has carried around with it literally for centuries. Personally I think this unsatisfactory as it stands; for I find myself, as Jung did, in the condition of those who cannot simply have faith in such things: “that is no viable path for someone who has to understand something before they can believe it” [Symbole der Wandlung, GW V, 295; my translation].
To move beyond that impasse, we can, at least for the moment, stick to the common ground. As a somewhat neutral formulation, let’s say that the unconscious can direct conscious attention towards such similarities and features of other people in the outer world, where those pre-exist. (And we leave it to later discussion whether, and if so, how, the unconscious might have a hand in also bringing them into existence in the first place.)
4. Synchronistic phenomena involve the unconscious directing the attention of the subject, including both sense perception and sense-making facilities, towards similarities in events around the subject and even characteristic personality features in other people; and the point of this direction of the attention is to bring to consciousness something of the unconscious tendencies. These tendencies are then symbolized, as it were, in the external patterns, and personalized in the personality features of other people. That is what is expressed by saying that the unconscious communicates to the subject “from without”.
A drop in the mental niveau, as we have seen, generally favors the influence of the unconscious; therefore, we might expect the unconscious to be able to effect more synchronicities if there is such a drop. And affect-loaded states in the subject can do precisely that. We seem to have arrived, then, at a reasonably coherent account for the phenomenon at hand.
But something seems not right here. First of all, although getting emotional might strengthen the influence of the unconscious, it also generally weakens perceptiveness — both in the sense that, in affect-loaded states, sense perception tends to be limited, actually is “narrowing” in quite a similar sense in which Jung used the term in the quotation above; and in the sense that sense-making facilities are functioning less well in such a state of upheaval. But in our account so far, synchronicities depend on precisely such capacities being exercised (albeit directed by the unconscious now, rather than consciously employed). Furthermore, it seems not a general feature in reports of synchronicities that the subject was in an emotionally aroused state when the phenomena took place. And finally, the relatively neutral thesis of the unconscious “directing attention” does not account for the emotional coloring which often adheres to synchronicities: they are typically experienced as “meaningful”, often even with a specific emotional tone. Our account, so far, has them on a par with any other kind of “noticing patterns or personality features”, at least with respect to how they are experienced. And that seems not to chime in with the phenomenology.