Friday, 14 January 2011

The Pauli Effect, Baader-Meinhof Phenomena and Synchronicity

In theoretical physics there is (or more precisely was between the years 1900 and 1958) a principle known as the Pauli Effect. Named after the renowned quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli, it is, simply stated: Experimental equipment will inevitably mysteriously malfunction in the presence of Wolfgang Pauli. The Pauli Effect was so feared by physicists world-wide that Pauli, despite his own prominence as a theoretician in the field, was barred from laboratories on three continents and wracked up unaccountable technical catastrophes in Germany, Switzerland and at Harvard. In one case, a friend of Pauli’s was so impressed by the mysterious total failure of his equipment during an experiment that he immediately wrote to the absent, and presumably far distant, Pauli cheerfully exonerating him only to discover that the good doctor had been changing trains on a nearby platform at the exact moment of the inexplicable debacle.

The principle survived Pauli’s death in the more general form: ‘The equipment of eminent experimental physicists will inevitably mysteriously malfunction in the presence of eminent theoretical physicists,’ and in large part the Pauli Effect owes both its birth and its endurance to its namesake. Pauli was firmly convinced that his pet principle was a reality, and he spent a large part of his career corresponding with the psychologist Carl Jung and other like minds about synchronicity and related parapsychic phenomenon in an effort to prove it.

The point of all this is not that physicists believe screwy things, nor am I trying to convince anyone that screwy things happen and look! a physicist agrees with me and that’s all the proof anyone should need, the point is more disinterestedly to draw attention to a fascinating phenomenon that, regardless of its foundations in science, pseudoscience or chicanery, has extremely interesting implications for the way we think about awareness and causality.

So, the long-awaited morbidly self-conscious statement of authorial intent: Whether you’re inclined to buy that there is some sort of parapsychic lattice of meaningful coincidence underlying reality or not, if you examine your life with an eye for synchronistic, or more popularly serendipitous, happenings, you will discover your own web of uncanny relationships that can be both useful and revealing. Chalk it up God’s plan, the ways of the Earth Spirit, or if you’re of the scientific ilk, some sort of awareness bias in which rather than certain things happening with unnatural regularity, the observer simply starts noticing certain existing things with increased regularity, whatever your philosophical views on the subject, exercises in synchronicity can hardly fail to entertain and edify if you’re of the mind for that sort of thing.

I imagine that most of the people who might be reading this are unlikely to become eminent physicists of either the experimental or theoretical variety, and are therefore, sadly, unlikely to have cause to observe the Pauli Effect in their own lives. Luckily for those among us that don’t have access to particle accelerators or just aren’t that good at math, there are other species of synchronistic effects that, if less spectacular than Pauli’s, can be just as fun. My personal favourite of these are the Baader-Meinhof Phenomena.

The Baader-Meinhof Gang was a West German terrorist organisation financed by the communist East, but the group itself is only anecdotally related to the principle. According to theory, whenever you learn about something new, be it an idea, person, place, thing, etc, that particularly strikes your fancy, you will begin to see signs of it, or references to it, or even the thing itself with surprising frequency. These events are called Baader-Meinhof Phenomena because the original incidence that led to the formulation of the theory was the peculiar recurrence of references to the Baader-Meinhof group.

This sort of effect is interesting for three reasons. In the first place, it virtually guarantees that the subject of the phenomenon is cemented permanently in memory. It’s been demonstrated neurologically that the brain forms memories by forming connections; a new piece of information is associated into the existing framework of memories, and the more associations a new memory carries with it, the more solid its foundation in memory. If you are told about the terrorist activities of the Baader-Meinhof group by a friend, then in the video store chance upon a German foreign film about the group, and finally find yourself reading a terse but amusing blog entry about Baader-Meinhof Phenomena, you are far more likely to remember the significance of the name than if it had only formed one of those associations. In this respect, the Phenomena can be extremely useful; by a simple trick of perception, new and interesting ideas are circumstantially reinforced in the mind of a person who is aware of the tendency towards concatenation of meaningful coincidences.

In the second place, and though it is a bit technical, it raises interesting philosophical questions about the reciprocal effects of perception and reality. Specifically, there is very little way to know if the tendency of events to group themselves in meaningful but unrelated ways is a property of reality as such or the result of an unconscious categorising faculty of perception. On the one hand, there may be a synchronistic lattice underlying reality that is responsible for organising the world around nodes of powerful meaning. On the other hand, it is equally possible that these nodes of meaning are the tangible result of the spontaneous organising activity of the brain, catalysed by a powerful stimulus, using material that had always been present in the environment to construct meaningful complexes.

And in the third place and most important place, these sorts of synchronistic events always occur around ideas that have an especially deep emotional resonance. They are immediately a window, at a very deep level, into your evolving values and passions. Whenever you stumble onto one of these relationships of meaningful coincidence, it is the sure sign that the nucleus of the affair ought to be looked into in much greater depth.

You may perhaps notice, if you are a student, or remember your student days particularly clearly, that even when taking four perfectly disparate classes there is a tendency for several of the same ideas or themes to appear and be discussed in all four, or at least three, of the classes. That, I believe, is the archetypical form of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomena, though admittedly it does seem to complicate our lovely little picture by hinting that perhaps the resonance is as much with the cultural gestalt as with the individual one. Be that as it may, the Baader-Meinhof Phenomena in this case is the ideal opportunity to capitalise on and consolidate the skills learned in each class and bring them to bear on a particularly salient interdisciplinary problem.

And now it seems that I’ve painted myself into a bit of an authorial dilemma, the Pauli Effect being quite obviously not a Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, it seems high time to examine the general principle underlying both Pauli and Baader. The Ariadne’s thread is the ‘acausal connecting principle’ theorised by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung and termed succinctly: Synchronicity.

The idea is deceptively simple, that there is a principle that leads events with similar meanings to group together despite the fact that they are causally unrelated. The classic example comes from the memoirs of Emile Deschamps. In 1805 he was treated to a dish of plum pudding by a stranger named M. de Fortgibu. Years later, at the end of a very fine dinner at a Paris restaurant, Deschamps ordered a cup of plum pudding only to discover that the last of it had just been served to the same M. De Fortgibu. Finally, in 1832, Deschamps was served a plum pudding at the house of a friend, he began telling the story of his mysterious coincidences around the dessert only to be interrupted by the entrance of one M. De Fortgibu.

When I say that the principle is deceptively simple, it is not because the element of the uncanny in the these such events is difficult to discern, nor because it’s difficult to sum up, but because the theoretical psychological justification of why such things should occur at all is by no means as simple as its demonstrable effects. Synchronicity serves as a sort of psychic parallel to the traditional chain of cause and effect. Just as causality operates in the mind as well as in the material world, synchronicity is not limited to the space between one’s ears, but also has a distinct effect on outer events.

In the same way that the organising principle of causality is the transfer of energy through matter, the organising principle of synchronicity is a sort of magnetic attraction between events of similar meanings. While causality is entirely determinate in its limited applicability to individual cases, in the main it is probabilistic and synchronicity chiefly describes the improbably frequent occurrence of the improbable in highly meaningful situations.

By way of example: In the mid 20s Jung did a statistical analysis of the relationship between astrological sign and likely marriage partner using a randomised sample of data from all over Europe. Midway through the study, having found no statistically significant relationship between birth sign and spousal choice, he left the rest of the number crunching to a student. This student was herself a devotee of astrology and was very much hoping that the study would validate her views. In the end it didn’t. The final result was that there was no statistically significant relationship between astrology and betrothal. What was statistically significant was the difference between the results calculated by the sceptical Jung for the first half of the data, and the results calculated by the emotionally invested student for the second half of the data. The numbers were re-tabulated and results were the same: the random distribution was such that the sceptic had been validated in his scepticism while the believer’s belief had meaningfully raised the incidence of a correlation that statistically speaking should not have existed in the data.

At this point, Wolfgang Pauli and the fledgling field of quantum physics became involved. Following an inspired conversation with Pauli and Albert Einstein, Jung and Pauli began collaborating on the daunting project of uniting the uncanny probabilities of synchronicity with those demonstrated by quantum theory and evidenced in Einstein’s relativity theory.

Certain foundational principles of quantum mechanics (entanglement, the collapse of the wave function under observation, the dual nature of light as wave and particle) were believed to precisely mirror on the subatomic level the macro-level effects that Jung was had described in his theory and that Pauli experienced every time he touched lab equipment.

But, to resurrect this discussion from the abstruse depths of technical so and so, the further history of this theory is far less illustrious. Shortly after the deaths of its principle proponents it was taken from the cold hands of the brilliant crackpots by the crackpots otherwise unspecified. Synchronicity was intended to be the beachhead from which hard science would begin to grapple with the awe-inspiring mysteries of free will, fate and divinity. It has become quite the opposite, an umbilical through which new-agers and charlatans more interested in a pseudoscientific justification for areligious mystification than in anything properly described as a quest for demonstrable truths leech legitimacy from the body of credible science. I would go so far as to say that no greater hell would be necessary for the doctor’s Jung and Pauli than an eternity in a simple cell furnished only with a stock-ticker tracking sales for ‘The Secret’ in real time.

This sort of popularisation-for-the-sake-of-capitalisation of infant interdisciplinary theories only serves to increase the numbers of scientific dogmatists who wont touch the stuff on principle because it’s been made so manifestly ridiculous by the ludicrous preachers of pragmatic pietism. The only person who has ever made a fortune playing the synchronicity stocks is the one who wrote it up into a self-help book. The sorts of spiritual sophists who float their faith on the market for magical solutions would do their cause much better by contenting themselves with self-discovery, terrorist trivia and the occasional plum pudding.

1 comment:

  1. I was dealing with the Pauli effect for 20 years, but was not aware of other sufferers. Working daily in Fault, fault, and fault finding in Electrical and Electronic circuits. The same happening would re occur in 3's on the same time scale, but all with slightly different reasons. Impossible odds against, it's as if the odds against was in reverse. Now I have retired all the Synchronicity of weird has stopped, best left in the past! Especially as it implies I may have been the one causing it to happen!