Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


You Can’t Always Control Your Thoughts

Thought Coincidence: Looping from the subconscious to the conscious highlights events that personally matter

Key points

  • How we rely on the brain for resolving and escaping troubling issues.
  • We loop between conscious and subconscious thoughts to return to normal.
  • The exceptional events are processed by recalibration with the familiar and predictable.
Source: Robert Fludd {{US-PD-expired}}
Source: Robert Fludd {{US-PD-expired}}

We sometimes think that our problems are unique. I recall too many nights when my sleep time was invaded by thoughts of either something disturbing that happened during the day or some agony about to happen the next morning. Sometimes it’s both. I am lucky enough to be one of those rare, older adults who sleeps quite well at night. I try as much as I can to follow Circadian rhythm routines that are sometimes interrupted by traveling through a few too many time zones. Most often though, I sleep like a porcelain doll; if you put me horizontally my eyes close. Within seconds, I fall asleep. Yet there are rare occasions when something goes wrong.

Why does the mind highlight our most vexing personal issues when we try to escape those very matters? I can’t answer that question. All I can do is raise it. However, as someone who has some expertise in coincidences and some credentials as the author of the book, Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence, I find myself fully capable of seeding some potential answers.

The conscious–subconscious loop.

First, one must understand what the subconscious is. That takes a few years of studying hundreds of books and thousands of papers on the subject. And that is done either before or after gaining some understanding of what consciousness is. However, as someone who dabbles in conflicts of the psyche, I know how the common mind loops information between conscious and unconscious levels of awareness.

I’m often questioned about why coincidences tend to happen to some people and not to others. The answer is simple: those of us who like to tell coincidence stories tend to also be people who are aware of our surroundings. Awareness is in control of present and future thoughts. Here is an example. When you walk along a busy street and pass a woman walking a dog, do you pay more attention to the woman or to the dog? There are four answers, woman, dog, both, and not any. But if the woman in question is nude, the answers would certainly lean toward woman, partly because there is a story to be told about an unusual scene. It is the unusual that draws our attention.

Episodic standouts alert the mind to recalibrate back to normal.

So, what happens when something unusual comes to play with your mind and well-being? Some bad news involving your work, your relationship with someone, or your health? One could ask the same question about good news. Episodic standouts lock into an awareness that doesn’t fade until it is cataloged for access in the cellular niches of the hippocampus. Bad news usually arrives episodically and is strong enough to have a robust charge leading to dominating inescapable thoughts.

Good news is also resilient but the mind’s job is to keep the body healthy and therefore it concerns itself more with the bad. Losing your job is not the same as not getting the job you applied for. Both, though, are not good news and both get pondered till memory puts them into the twists of conscious and unconscious mind-play relays.

Bad news can keep us awake at night as we mull over different views of how things happened in search of how things retrospectively would have been better if we had only made a change in the path taken. Those reconsiderations can involve the cortex and other brain areas to bring on dreams that might start as collages of random daytime memories and end in rationally interpretive stories. Put together, we build a highlighted awareness that is ready to couple with our daytime mindfulness.

Those mulling thoughts that keep us awake at night

My thoughts come from a recent experience with my teenage grandchild. I love him, and I believe he loves me. However, for reasons I can’t fathom, he texted me in insulting ways. From time to time, we all have coincidences of thought or episodic coincidences. Typically, if you buy a car of what appears to be an unusual make, model, or strange color, suddenly you find that you never noticed so many cars of that style on the road. Surely, those cars were on the road before your unusual purchase. By analogy to my concern with my grandchild, I see that concern as I read a novel or see a film and am hit with moments or reading or seeing something to do with my grandchild’s rudeness. The plot interlude might be just a child behaving like a child but from my trouble-biased view, I would draw a connection to my grandchild.

So how does that happen? It's because our brains are trained to do their job of keeping our bodies safe. They learn how from years of processing the familiar and predictable. Anything exceptional is interpreted to be unstable so our brains rely on conscious recalibrations to process exceptions from the norm to manage future conceptions and expectations. In some personal situations that are strikingly troublesome, thought circuitry goes into recalibration mode and that is when our thoughts question what happened and search for answers. In my case, for the past few days, in whatever movie I see and in whatever book I read, my brain tends to highlight any connections to grandchildren, grandparents, rudeness, or even family life.


Joseph Mazur, Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

More from Joseph Mazur
More from Psychology Today
More from Joseph Mazur
More from Psychology Today