Ever wondered why there is so much coincidence? Seth Godin blogged about some he experienced recently.

The answer is simple… It is because sometimes we make it for ourselves, let me introduce Gestalt Psychology.

Gestalt Psychology (nothing to do with the therapy of the same name) basically says that the brain tries to make sense of the things that it experiences. In fact, it is very good at it, which is why we can watch a TV screen which is really just a bunch of crude dots, and we can have a phone call even though there is lots of noise, distortion and half of the speech is missing. The brain is amazingly made! It always tries to find meaning in things – the law of pragnanz.

We have to watch ourselves with pragnanz, because we often end up justifying things that really don’t make sense, which is no way to get things done! Gestalt is the german word for form (shape). Some of the basic ideas in Gestalt systems are as follows:

  • Emergence – we perceive the whole, grouping items, then fill in the details (making up the gaps if necessary).
  • Reification – we perceive the parts and construct a whole to create closure (again, making up the gaps).
  • Multistability – we can flip between conflicting interpretations rapidly.
  • Invarience – we can reconstruct disparate images to find the similarities in them.

The wikipedia link has a couple of good diagrams that illustrate these points, for example this one on Reification. You might have heard the phrase “Escher’s world”. He was an artist that used many of these concepts to create optical illusions (nice gallery here, you can even buy Escher stuff). Illusionists and magicians also use these properties of the brain to trick us into seeing things that are not there.

The concepts seem to apply at higher levels as well, so we have to watch this in our communication with others. I’ve watched experiments that show how you can even cause someone to miss hear words if the context is wrong. If you expect that someone is going to give you a particular message, for example a preconception that someone will be calling to deliver some bad news, body language or tone of voice. When that message arrives and the tone of their voice is downcast, you may hear what they say as bad news, even if it isn’t! So, be careful out there, it isn’t all as it at seems. We need to be mindful what we communicate with our body language.

So, enough on coincidence, now you can sleep more easily, without worrying about coincidence anymore. You’ll just see it everywhere. Mystery solved. Not that marketers don’t pass on your phone number, email address and clothes size as well, of course!