Synchronicity in writing

It seems to me that if you start looking for something in earnest you are almost certain to find it, or something weirdly related to it, and often where you would least expect. It’s a kind of coincidence thing – no logical explanation. Start reading and thinking and you will find that other, related stuff starts seeping out from under the skirting boards, wafting down the chimney and tap-tap-tapping at the window.

I am not the first to notice this. Famously, C G Jung talks about the coincidences that seem to happen in the world outside one’s head when something is going on inside it. This phenomenon he referred to on his good days as synchronicity; on his duller days he called it acausal parallelism. It is implied in common sayings like Seek and Ye Shall Find and When the pupil is ready, the Master appears. Anyway, enough of the Biblical/mystical stuff. I will give you an example of something synchronicitous that happened to me last year.

I had been writing about Sherlock Holmes and the justifications given in the novels for his rather shocking – to the modern reader – use of cocaine when bored. It happened to be my birthday that day and I was forced to take the day off, not to do anything birthdayish but to drive my car to a garage forty miles distant for its annual service. Car services take several hours and it was far too cold to be hobbling around the windswept streets of this distant town whilst waiting, so I spent part of the time in a nearby Tesco store, slowly filling a wire basket with birthday cards, cheese and pickle sandwiches, packs of fifty black biros and all those other things you tend to purchase when you just need to be somewhere indoors and heated in the coldest month of the year.

One of the things I spotted was a glossy science and technology magazine called Focus. I never normally buy magazines and had never heard of Focus, but it was in this randomly-purchased item that I discovered an article by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin (Professor of Psychology at McGill University, Montreal). There were several interesting bits. For example, did you know that human beings can only pay attention to a maximum of four things at any one time? So if you’re driving the car and searching for a parking space you may need to turn off the car radio to concentrate. (According to Cesar Milan the TV Dog Whisperer, by the way, dogs can only attend to one thing at a time.)

The two sentences that really caught my attention were these:

Ten thousand years ago things didn’t change very fast, so if something novel presented itself it was a good adaptive strategy to pay attention. We evolved a chemical system whereby we get a little shot of dopamine that makes us feel good every time we encounter something new.

and further down the same paragraph:

Dopamine is the chemical released when you eat chocolate, when gamblers win a bet and that gets people addicted to cocaine.

So do you see? Although Arthur Conan Doyle was a qualified doctor he could not have known about the neurotransmitter dopamine, since he died in 1930 and it was not discovered until 1957; yet he had Sherlock Holmes resorting to the drug cocaine when the stimulation he got from detection (encountering something new) was absent – spot on! The connection is dopamine, but the creator of Sherlock Holmes could not possibly have known this.

It’s a trivial thing, and would probably only be useful if you were writing a scholarly paper about Sherlock Holmes, but that’s what I mean about synchronicity. The more you read, the more you wonder, the more you become absorbed in, fascinated by and focussed upon a subject, the more related information will somehow pop up, get mentioned on the news or wander across the road in front of you. You will find that books fall open at the right page; the poster you glide past on the escalator will contain the quote you need; a random internet page will lead you to another and then another – and there some relevant something will happen to be.

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