Ep. 26 – The Science, Psychology & Math of Coincidence & Bias

As you get started listening to this episode, take a quick look around at what you are seeing right now.

Even before your mind can register all the activity, your eyes are already busy capturing it. The human eye can take in more than 300 megapixels of visual information every second. That’s better than the camera on my phone!

However, our brain can only handle about 100 pieces of information every second that come in from all of our senses. So to process all this data, our brains acts as a mental magnifying glass. It does so by scanning the daily horizon and honing in on patterns and preferences that are most relevant to us. It’s like doing an online search and then hitting the filter button that says: Makes The Most Sense to Me

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that meaning is in the mind of the beholder.

Episode 25 looked at how the Complexity Bias leads us to trust more complicated things initially over more simple alternatives. Today’s conversation is about the many ways our mind seeks to support our beliefs as we wander through our busy days.

Our brain trains the senses to be on the hunt for the most Me things it can find. That’s part of why you can be in a crowded room and hear someone say your name even with lots of other people talking around you.

This special superpower is a mix of science, psychology, and even mathematics.

Let’s start on the science side with some biology. Each of us have a reticular activating system (or RAS) that sits in the base of our brain and serves as a gateway between our conscious and unconscious mind. This is where most of our senses are wired into and are activated within the RAS based on what is being prioritized by your brain.

Let’s use an example. Take another look around right now and find something that is blue. Didn’t take you very long, did it? I bet you might have even found more than one thing that was blue. Your brain took an action (“look for something blue”) and put the RAS to work using your sense of sight.

Now combine that with emotion and your RAS gets super nerdy on your behalf. Let’s say you have always wanted to drive a blue Mercedes Benz. That’s information (color and car model) + a desire (your want). Together, these become cognitive clues for the RAS to find, even subconsciously. You could be walking through a full parking lot thinking of something else and your brain will spot a blue Mercedes three rows over and let you know.

This is an example of a type of cognitive bias called the “frequency illusion.” This is when, after we notice something for the first time, there is a tendency to notice it more often – which leads us to believe, at times, that there is an increased frequency of occurrence. Maybe there is, or maybe our mind is just more tuned in to that channel at the moment.

For me, this happens with butterflies. When I see them, I think of my father who passed away many years ago. Because I have that emotional connection, I tend to see butterflies more frequently. My brain finds them because it matters to my heart.

The deeper the emotion, the more the RAS is activated. When you’re falling in love with someone, suddenly everything around you reminds you of them. All your senses come out to play and send you signals: sight, sounds, smells – the RAS becomes a kaleidoscope of information all to support your desire for this person. It’s where head and heart work together to validate feelings with facts.

‘Validate’ is a key word there as that is the thread through the different concepts of how your mind works.

Moving from science to math brings in the concept of probability theory. This is the analysis of random phenomena. While your senses are bringing in lots of information, the RAS is filtering it and trying to see what gets through. In doing so, it is looking for patterns and it’s also trying to predict what might come next.

That’s where probability comes in as it tries to both predict and validate what the mind is seeing.

While the outcome of a random event can’t be pre-determined, there are many situations where there are several possible outcomes, such as when you roll a pair of dice. As the brain processes the actual outcome of that roll, it – with help from the RAS – will want to assign meaning to it. “Oh, 7 is my lucky number! That must be a sign.”

Our mathematics friends will say that the outcome of a roll is always a 1 in 12 chance. Even if the same number happens twice in a row, it was still a 1 in 12 chance of that happening. Unless our mind steps forward and inserts a different meaning to it.

This happens a lot in our human interactions. We will be thinking of someone and then we run into them and exclaim: “What are the odds?” Probably the same odds of seeing a blue Mercedes, says probability theory.

Our emotional response is the one applying meaning to that connection. This is a core component of religion, spirituality, and our belief system. Probability theory, on the other hand, steps forward to serve as the counterbalance of “common sense.” Both of those are working to process what you experienced and, wherever possible, are seeking to prove you right.

This is where psychology intersects with pattens. A coincidence is the notion of having a meaningful experience or circumstance that doesn’t have an apparent cause or connection. When this happens, our brains try to work backward and find a pattern of the What and our emotional processing center is looking for a meaning and a Why.

So if we see an unusual configuration – like a dice roll having two 7s in a row – we might think there is significance, that there is something special simmering.

Probability experts and statisticians would point out that unlikely occurrences happen quite frequently because there are so many possible outcomes.

An example of this is a probability concept called the Birthday Paradox. This states that in a room of 23 or more people, there is a 50/50 chance of at least two people having the same birthday. Now let’s take that a step further because, according to statistics, if that room has 75 or more people in it, there is a 99.9% chance of at least two people having matching birthdays.

I know, I know, this starts to make our heads spin. And it’s a great example of when meaning making meets math. That doesn’t mean, by the way, if you’re in that room that someone will have your birthday – just that two people will. Yet when we find someone with our birthday, we attach a heightened meaning to that connection.

This happened to me personally last year when I was picking up a car in the San Francisco airport on my birthday weekend. The woman checking me out at the car rental place noticed my driver’s license and said: “That’s my birthday!” The exact same day and the exact same year. Plus she had a twin sister so there was extra meaning – there was three of us! She upgraded my car, and we took a picture together to send off to her sister. It was a really fun moment.

This is also an example of why all the math and science and psychology is simply input. The output is the meaning we get from the experience we just had. Coincidence and serendipity, they add special flavor to life.

The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung explored this with what he called our “collective unconscious.” We see the collective unconscious, he said, to give meaning to the world. It helps us find comfort for difficult things (like a visit from a butterfly) and add extra joy in happy ones (like a song that reminds you of someone special). Jung also introduced the concept of synchronicity to describe coincidences that have personal meaning to us when there isn’t an evident or obvious connection or cause.

He saw this as a healthy way to explore and respond to the world around us. And that’s the point of this conversation.

How we connect to the world has direct impact on how we respond to it.

Sometimes we may have an encounter that simply seems like a curious happenstance. Other times, we may feel a pull of a connection that directly influences the actions we take thereafter.

As you process any given day, there may be times where you categorize experiences as probability and other times where it feels more like what Carl Jung called unus mundus, which is Latin for “one world” – where we live in a network with intricate connections.

Psychology helps explain how we notice coincidences and probability explains why they happen so often. It’s our individual experiences, however, are the true tapestry of life. The meaning of each is ultimately up to us to decide.

There is magic in the mind as it flexes its superpowers. See where you can use some of those powers in what you experience today and how that affects tomorrow.

And until next time, take good care.

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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.