For many years I have been convinced I’m psychic. Specifically, a TV psychic. There were certain flirtations with other phenomena when I was little. I used to believe for example, that my bluebird of happiness ring possessed the power to influence the physical world if I simultaneously thought of an event and swivelled it around on my finger. Laugh if you will, but I had legitimate reasons for believing this so—reasons I shan’t go into now. As a teenager, I immersed myself in the occult (anything that would buttress my forced outsiderness) and was near-evangelical in my belief in astrology (both eastern and western). Ageing has of course cured me of these nonsensical afflictions and I am now an ardent non-believer in just about everything paranormal, superstitious, new age, religious or vaguely mystical. I still knock on wood, but a little piece of my rational brain dies each time I do it. Yet the TV psychic, I am unable to shake.
Why, you may ask, particularly as the concept of TV psychic seems so utterly ludicrous, let alone claiming to have that capability. Well, because there’s so much proof. Over the years, as long as I can remember, I have had the experience of thinking of a film, as the result of a variety of triggers, only to discover that within a short space of time (no more than a week, sometimes as rapidly as that day), the same film will be aired on TV (or suddenly available cheaply on DVD, but I treat that as more or less in the same vein). Often I have giggled to myself about it and treated it as nothing more than a humorous coincidence. Yet the frequency with which it occurs can be so uncanny that my mind cannot help but veer into foolhardy, mystical territories. Black Swan was one of the more obvious ones; I was thinking about how much I’d like to see it since watching it for the first time on the flight back from Australia, only to find it in Sainsbury’s that same day for £3. A more obscure example is for some reason the line “Chinese girls don’t have green eyes” came into my head and then within days, Big Trouble in Little China was being broadcast as the late night film. Or, I was in the library recently and borrowed Swedish film Together, only to find it on Channel 4 a few days later. A recent one, which I confess caused me to exclaim out loud, was when I was doing some image sourcing for a history book and had to search through archival photos of the Berlin Wall. I began thinking of that scene in Spy Game where Brad Pitt is trying to smuggle an East German refugee across the border and takes a solution to make himself vomit in toilet when his front is about to be rumbled. Taking a break from the work, I switched on the TV where the voiceover announced that coming up next was ‘Robert Redford and Brad Pitt in the stylish thriller, Spy Game‘. You can imagine my surprise.
Or perhaps you can’t. After all, this does seem a paltry set of examples, although it has racked up to the hundreds in the last 20 years. If you’re anything like the Doc, you’d probably say to me: “Right. And?” And I would agree, for whatever ephemeral flutter I experience from these trivial moments of cosmic alignment, I recognise, wholeheartedly, they are nothing more than mere coincidences.
But then what is a coincidence if not some form of cosmic alignment? Jung was pretty convinced of the extra sensory, premonitory abilities—or, “synchronicity”— of the human unconscious and its connection with physical events, despite most scientists dismissing such causation as philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Are our thoughts part of some collective unconscious, exercised even at the level of the completely banal i.e. TV programming?
Let us take the example of names. Every second boy and girl seem to have the names Edith and Noah at the moment. When I recently pondered this out loud, a friend of mine argued that people probably hear the name somewhere without realising it and it filters into their thought process. The name thus lies in their mind, perhaps even dormant, and then reemerges at a given moment. David Spiegelhalter makes the same point: “Psychological studies have identified our unconscious capacity for heightened perception to a recently heard word or phrase, so that we notice when something on our mind immediately comes up in a song on the radio.” When I was pregnant with my first child, sauntering around the British museum, I saw a plaque pertaining to some kind of plate, painted by Edith someone. Edith, I thought, that could be an interesting name for a girl. Yes, the name was inspired by me seeing the name written, but the experience of me viewing that plaque and being pregnant with a girl and in the market for a girls’ name seemed wholly original. Yet within a few days, I met two people with new babies named Edie—aka Edith (subsequently, I have met several more). How could this have happened? I thought to myself. My experience was so isolated, unique. And yet, I can’t escape the sense that ideas—whether names, films, food trends, cafe/concept stores, etc—float around in the ether, like bubbles of inspiration, which individuals tap into simultaneously. This is fairly inline with the notion of collective unconscious; an interconnectedness of thought, but perhaps minus the telepathic communication.
I suspect however, that the answer is something far more prosaic, particularly in terms of my TV predicting. Aside from Big Momma’s House and Along Came a Spider, films which seem to be on a fortnightly rotation, most films (I imagine) follow a fairly standard marketing trajectory. i.e Together was probably in the library because it was recently released on DVD which is why it stands to reason it was on TV shortly thereafter … I don’t actually know how these things operate, but my guess is it’s something along those lines. Furthermore, as Spiegelhalter argues, unbeknownst to our conscious mind, certain triggers may heighten our perception so we become more sensitive to information or phenomena as we encounter it; triggers may be so inconsequential as to be almost undetectable, hence our belief that there is some sort of cosmic explanation. If this is the case, does it have broader implications? Can our ideas ever be original if they are simply the product of triggers and unconsciously absorbed stimuli?
Or maybe I do genuinely have the sixth sense. Perhaps I should stop wasting my talents on the utterly non-lucrative forum of television and try my hand at gambling. Trip to the dogs, anyone? Woof woof.
Photograph by Thomas Hawk