Yes, I already know what you are thinking. I’m a mentalist, right? Coincidence? What’s so unusual about it? You are thinking there’s nothing particularly paranormal about coincidence. Science, skeptics and psychologists have taken the concept apart and dissected it down to its constituent elements. It’s been already explained away and nothing worth debating. Yet despite such drab things as facts to the contrary, I’m not as easily convinced that coincidence is just an accidental event as some of my skeptical friends.
As a performing mentalist, I get the chance to play around with terms and concepts like coincidence, synchronicity, worm holes and other wild thinking. It’s all part of the plausibility factors I work to invoke to get the audience to buy into what I do. Some might even suggest that sensitizing an audience to these ideas creates a “psi-conducive” awareness that might even allow such things to happen in rare instances. In my travels I picked up the line: “Coincidence is a word scientists use to explain what they can’t explain.” Sounds like bull, huh? Well okay. Engrained habits die hard. That line worked for awhile, but now I think I know better. Or do I?
Throughout the history of parapsychology there have been examples that have gone far beyond just the standard cause and effect one-time moments most of us have experienced and wondered about. Odds, probability and chance play into this in mathematical ways I can’t even begin to comprehend. Hey, I’m a magician! I do tricks. I suggest. I transpose. I transubstantiate. I take apart. I recombine. Is it any wonder that weird unplanned things happen now and again? And they do. There are so many of these coincidental synchronized events chronicled in the history of stage mentalists and magicians, a whole television reality series could be put together on just that subject alone. Do magicians and mentalists have a greater penchant for imaginative conceits and are we simply deluding ourselves like the worst of the psychics or do we just think weird stuff all the time? Does fate play some part in these moments of seeming transcendence? And what is fate anyway? It’s not a scientific construct. So is there anything going on besides just a condition of facts coinciding? Maybe it’s just me. It’s hard to tell. These bizarre moments are by no means confined to performers whose job it is to simulate them. A standard example from BBC radio writer Joan Aiken:
” Wires get crossed, perhaps. The boss of a friend of ours left his office early one day and went home, calling at a fish-and-chips shop on the way. Close to the fish-and-chippery was a phone box and, as he passed it, the phone rang. He picked up the receiver. It was his own secretary, at his office, telling him about an urgent job. By mistake, instead of his phone number, she had dialed his National Insurance number next to it on the index card … which happened to be the number of the call box …”
I know the standard riff skeptics say to this: “Well, …what if the phone had rung and he hadn’t picked up the receiver?” Point is: he did. That he did is what makes that situation a coincidence. But it gets better. Things more complex than this simple coincidence pattern have manifested for many people, including myself:
One night many years ago, I was booked doing walk around close-up magic to warm-up the crowd at The Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach for Jay Leno. I would roam around the main room doing this and that before Jay came out to do his routine. That night I was working a card trick where I asked someone to “think of a card.” I have always preferred “think of” card bits because they seem more powerfully “mental” than more sleight of hand methods and thereby, to my way of thinking, more impossible. In these “experiments” the spectator doesn’t pick a card, they merely think of any card. This is totally random and it could be any card that I will work with. I will never forget the next hour that passed after I asked the first person that question. They responded with, “Okay, …the Nine of Spades.” Fair enough. I did my bit with the Nine of Spades, finished with that table and went across the room to another random spectator. I asked the same question and was given the same answer, the Nine of Spades. Okay. Now we have simple “coincidence” and that’s all. No big deal. It was a little weird to have the same card come up twice in a row, but not that amazing.
I went back into the crowd and this time switched to a “pick a card” routine where any card is pulled from the deck randomly by the spectator and I proceed to identify it by any of dozens of methods. The card chosen by the spectator was once again the Nine of Spades. Okay. I’m thinking to myself, that’s weird; not exactly paranormal, just a little bizarre. But I’m starting to wonder a bit. Of course, in my character of Mr. Magic, I couldn’t very well blurt out, “Wow, that’s really weird, the Nine of Spades again!” It wouldn’t have made any sense to anyone but me. It was a personal thing happening in my head and I was the only one to whom it would be anything other than just one of those stories. I shrugged it off like most of us would and went on deciding I needed to mix things up, get as far away from that side of the room as possible, and try again.
I went to a farthest, noisiest corner I could find away from the rest of the room I had already worked and (asking for trouble) picked the most inebriated person I could find and asked them to think of any card in the deck. They screwed up their face in concentration and eventually named the Nine of Spades. I’m not making this up. It happened.
My magician mind began to spin wild conspiracy thoughts. There had to be an explanation. I thought the club owner might have put everyone in on a big prank and was messing with me. Maybe the back of tonight’s ticket stub read: “Say the Nine of Spades if the magician asks you.” I was getting a bit spooked but bounced back to the opposite side of the room, being careful to avoid anyone near any areas I might have been overheard before and opted for the “pick a card” bit again. Guess which card came up? Yep, the Nine of Spades! I realized that the prank hypothesis wouldn’t have covered how two people had now taken totally random cards from a shuffled deck and came up with the Nine of Spades. I must have looked quite pale as I finished with that table.
I reasoned maybe the two “pick a card” folks were just as they were, simply random choices that could fall under standard two event coincidence. That would have made them not that statistically incredible, but adding in the other three “think of a card” people and it was starting to feel like the Twilight Zone. That was five Nines of Spades in a row in the span of around twenty-five minutes. My head was spinning with bewilderment. The nearby cocktail waitress was watching me looking adrift and, convincing myself it couldn’t happen again, I asked her to quickly pick out a card. It couldn’t happen again, but it did. That made six! I just couldn’t figure it. I took a needed break and after collecting myself, stopped by the owner’s office where he and his assistant (who are usually much too busy to even notice I’m there) were busy as usual. I mumbled something to them about there being a joke on me tonight and they looked blankly back at me as if I was crazy. I decided to stop by the Green Room, where Jay and the other comedians hung out. I shuffled my cards nervously, carefully looking them over to make sure they weren’t somehow daubed or marked with mustard or ketchup that might have caused the Nine of Spades card to be more thick, stuck or stand out from the rest. I found no solution to my befuddlement. Jay asked why I looked so shaky and I told him what had been happening. Laughing at my predicament, he took the cards from me, shuffled them three or four times and said,”…If you go back out there and the Nine of Spades comes up again now, … even I’ll be impressed.”
I wandered back out into the crowd in a bemused sensation of dread, afraid to offer anyone a card, but uneasily resolved to do one more ”pick a card any card” routine. What could be the chances?
Things like this aren’t supposed to happen. It throws off my timing! I picked a table, approached rather sheepishly and in almost a whisper, uttered those now detestable words, “Pick a card any card.” To my chagrin, the card chosen wasn’t the Nine of Spades! It was some other card I don’t remember. I do remember that I was momentarily rendered speechless. The spectator must have wondered why the look on my face was so joyfully flabbergasted. To him it was just a stupid pick a card trick. Apparently (as many believers might conjecture) Jay had taken the “whammy” off the cards and broken the spell. Seven times being “the charm” in this case. Who knows what really happened that night. I realize that there is a chance that selective memory could conceivably be a critical factor in relating all this. I swear the facts related are essentially true and how I remember it happening. Six of one and six of another and then bingo – nothing. And BTW, I was stone sober that night. Interestingly enough, the Nine of Spades has hardly ever come up when I have been performing card routines since that night. It’s almost as if I used up all the chances for that particular card to turn up in one hour of my lifetime. What a crazy superstition that is, right?
How do we explain things like this or can we? What’s the probability, math guys? Give me a formula that explains it clearly. It may seem only slightly odd to you, to me this was an authentic event that left me wondering to myself more than once or twice, …who was fooling who?
Of course we can dismiss the whole thing and say, so what? It ultimately means nothing and like coin tossing, has no relevance to magic, skepticism or life’s big questions. Such anecdotal tales are of no scientific value or proof of anything. It’s a blip on the radar screen and absurd. It was just a card trick and doesn’t prove or disprove anything. And we would be right. But still a blip is a blip.
I’m interested in investigating verifiable situations where a “coincidence” happens this way. If you remember Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” the feeling I had that night was analogous. When the odds seem incalculable (if that term is even appropriate) and the specific information repeats itself again and again in a short time frame, the “coincidence” becomes something altogether different from the norm. Am I alone here? Probably not.
Mark Edward is a professional mentalist who specializes in magic of the mind. He continues to be consulted by the media for his knowledge of spiritualism, psychic fraud and ghost lore.
More from Mark can be found at SkepticBlog and TheMarkEdward.com