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Book Review: Living in Flow: The Science of Synchronicity and How Your Choices Shape Your World by Sky Nelson-Isaacs

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Abstract

While Sky Nelson-Isaacs is not the first physicist to be interested in the phenomenon of synchronicity—others who come to mind are Wolfgang Pauli, F. David Peat, and Walter von Lucadou—Nelson-Isaacs’ new book Living in Flow is notable for its engaging and highly readable presentation of his particular theory about the relationship between quantum physics and synchronicity. Like the great idealist philosophers before him, Nelson-Isaacs takes mind to be the primary reality, and his theory explains how the contents of our minds—in particular, the qualities of the experiences we anticipate having—shape the evolution of the physical world through the process of “meaningful history selection.” Nelson-Isaacs also links his theory to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, positing that we are best able to shape the evolution of the world in accordance with our desires when we are in the state of flow. Nelson-Isaacs begins his book with the psychological component of his theory and works up to the quantum physics near the end, but I’m going to take the opposite approach here.
BOOK REVIEW
Living in Flow: The Science of Synchronicity and How Your Choices
Shape Your World by Sky Nelson-Isaacs. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic
Books, 2019. 320 pp. $19.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-62317-311-1.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.31275/2019/1563
Copyright: Creative Commons CC-BY-NC
While Sky Nelson-Isaacs is not the first physicist to be interested in the
phenomenon of synchronicity—others who come to mind are Wolfgang
Pauli, F. David Peat, and Walter von Lucadou—Nelson-Isaacs’ new book
Living in Flow is notable for its engaging and highly readable presentation
of his particular theory about the relationship between quantum physics
and synchronicity. Like the great idealist philosophers before him, Nelson-
Isaacs takes mind to be the primary reality, and his theory explains how
the contents of our minds—in particular the qualities of the experiences
we anticipate having—shape the evolution of the physical world through
the process of “meaningful history selection.” Nelson-Isaacs also links his
theory to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, positing
that we are best able to shape the evolution of the world in accordance with
our desires when we are in the state of flow.
Nelson-Isaacs begins his book with the psychological component of his
theory and works up to the quantum physics near the end, but I’m going to
take the opposite approach here.
Those who have some familiarity with the basic ideas of quantum
theory will be aware that the mathematics of quantum mechanics provides
us with information about a physical system in the form of a collection
of superposed states and their associated probability amplitudes. However,
it has long been a matter of debate what causes one of these superposed
states to become the state we ultimately observe. Many theories have been
proposed, but none has been universally agreed upon. Nelson-Isaacs takes
the position that it is the act of observation by a mind that causes a physical
system to assume a determinate state (at least with regard to that observer).
Furthermore, he hypothesizes that the qualitative experience anticipated
by the observing mind influences which state becomes actual, with states
more conducive to the anticipated qualitative experience being more likely
to occur.
Journal of Scienti c Exploration, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 492–496, 2019 0892-3310/19
Book Review 493
Nelson-Isaacs offers the concrete example of a woman rushing to catch
a subway train so she can see a play at the theater. The woman is a bit
late and is rushing specifically because she doesn’t want to miss out on the
delicious popcorn served at this theater—she is vividly anticipating the taste
of this salty snack on her tongue. Nelson-Isaacs says that the woman’s vivid
anticipation is able to influence which possible states of her environment
become actual, weighting the various possible states in favor of those that
are more likely to produce the qualitative experience she’s anticipating. For
instance, if there’s a cyclist boarding the train at the time that the woman is
rushing to catch it, her mental anticipation of popcorn at the theater could
increase the likelihood of the cyclist’s getting their bike stuck in the train
doors, so that the train is delayed in leaving the station and the woman
has enough time to board. Or the woman’s anticipation could increase the
likelihood that the driver of the train will be momentarily distracted so that
the train doors close a few seconds later than they normally would. There are
many different ways that the woman’s anticipated, qualitative experience of
salty popcorn at the theater could be promoted by the way events unfold
around her, and some of them might not even involve her making it to the
play on time. As Nelson-Isaacs points out, it could be that she makes it
to the play too late to be seated but then discovers that a nearby movie
theater is playing a film she’s been wanting to watch, and so she ends up in
the movie theater munching on their salty popcorn and enjoying the very
qualitative experience she’d been anticipating, albeit in a different context.
Nelson-Isaacs notes that his theory allows us to explain synchronistic
experiences without appealing to supernatural powers of influence over
other people or objects. This woman isn’t causing the bicycle or the train
driver to behave in any particular way. Rather, the quantum processes
occurring in her environment are evolving in response to the qualitative
experience on which she’s focusing her mental energy.
Nelson-Isaacs also points out that his theory avoids the thorny
paradoxes that are often associated with causation backward in time. Many
synchronistic experiences seem to be built on past events being affected
by what we are thinking or desiring now, but in Nelson-Isaacs’ theory our
anticipated qualitative experiences don’t go back in time and change events
that have already occurred, a situation that could lead to Back to the Future
type paradoxes, where one could be responsible for preventing one’s own
birth. Rather, says Nelson-Isaacs, the past only takes on a definite state
or “history” when we observe it or its effects (and it only takes on that
definite state for the mind that has made the observation). Since we have
observed that we were in fact born, the past is (for us, at least) determinate
with respect to that event, but it can remain indeterminate with respect to
494 Book Review
many other details that we have not yet observed, including, perhaps, the
specific details of our conception. Nelson-Isaacs calls this aspect of his
theory “retroactive event determination,” and according to it the qualitative
experiences we are anticipating now can, without paradox, influence the
yet-indeterminate portions of the past toward possible histories that are
conducive to the production of these experiences. As Nelson-Isaacs puts it,
The end result makes the history fall into place” (p. 208). And this is why
he calls his overall theory one of “meaningful history selection.”
Now for the psychological component of Nelson-Isaacs’ hypothesis.
Nelson-Isaacs admits that the universe doesn’t always seem to be giving
us what we want. In fact, sometimes it can seem that events are continually
falling into place so as to thwart our desires. What’s going on here? For
one thing, many people besides ourselves are influencing the evolution of
events in our world, and many of them may be influencing those events in
a manner contrary to our own desires. But Nelson-Isaacs also emphasizes
that his hypothesis is that the physical world responds to the experiences we
anticipate, not necessarily to the experiences we desire. We may really want
a certain thing to happen, but if we spend all of our mental energy focusing
on how horrible we will feel if it doesn’t happen, then the physical world is
going to evolve in a way that promotes that negative qualitative experience,
rather than the positive one we would prefer. Furthermore, we may not
always be consciously aware of the experiences we are subtly anticipating.
Because the physical world so faithfully mirrors those underlying anticipated
experiences back at us, paying attention to our environment can actually be
an excellent way of noticing our inner thought processes and how they run
counter to our expressed desires.
Nelson-Isaacs encourages readers to cultivate mental and emotional
clarity so that “the cosmos can respond to [their] highest ideals, not [their]
worries and fears” (p. 47), and he offers some practical advice regarding
how to do this. He says that positive synchronicities—events that are in
accordance with what we most deeply desire—are promoted by entering the
state of flow described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In flow,
says Nelson-Isaacs, there is a balance between inner drive and responsiveness
to the environment. We are in touch with our highest inner purposes as
well as in tune with the messages that our circumstances are sending us
about the most fruitful paths to achieving those purposes, given what all
the other minds around us are anticipating. In flow, we are not focused on
the possible negative outcomes of events around us but instead are calmly
aware of what we deeply desire as well as receptive to the creative ways in
which the universe may respond to us. Nelson-Isaacs offers six practical
steps for promoting flow, summarized by the acronym LORRAX: Listen,
Book Review 495
Open, Reflect, Release, Act, and
Repeat(X). When we are able to
desire in this detached way, he
says, the universe turns out to be
highly responsive to our desires.
In the end, I find both
the quantum mechanical and
psychological components of
Nelson-Isaacs’ theory plausible.
I’ve been carefully studying the
phenomenon of synchronicity
for almost a decade, and Nelson-
Isaacs’ theory aligns with many
of the basic features of this
phenomenon I have observed.
(For instance, many people
who have experienced strong
synchronicities have reported
their being accompanied by
a relaxed but focused state of
mind that it seems reasonable to
connect to Csikszentmihalyi’s
concept of flow.) It is certainly refreshing to hear someone who is well-
versed in quantum mechanics—Nelson-Isaacs has an MS in physics and
specializes in the foundations of quantum mechanics—put forward a theory
that many less-qualified authors have only been able to gesture at. Physicists
will probably wish that he went into more technical detail, and it’s likely
that philosophers and psychologists will also wish for more detail regarding
the aspects of the theory that touch on their own specialties. However, one
of the strengths of Nelson-Isaacs’ book is the way in which he brings these
disciplines together to create a unified theory that can spur the imaginations
of lay readers and specialists alike, and create a framework for much future
detailed technical work in all of these areas. And those who are interested
in the quantum mechanical details of Nelson-Isaacs’ theory can consult his
scholarly articles on the subject, including one in this journal.
But, if I can understand why Nelson-Isaacs didn’t give more technical
details in this popular work, I do think his book would have been
strengthened, even for popular audiences, by considering a wider range of
synchronistic experiences. The particular real-life examples that he offers
are rather mild and could be easily explained as mere chance events. It’s
hard to see why these particular experiences would motivate one to adopt
496 Book Review
a revolutionary physical theory. More striking examples of synchronicities
are certainly out there, as I show in my own recent book The Source and
Significance of Coincidences (2019), and I believe Nelson-Isaacs’ book
could have benefited from including a few cases of this more compelling
variety, some of which border on blatant psychokinesis.
I also discuss in my book evidence that many of the synchronistic
events in our lives have their origins in sources external to us, only some of
which are other living human beings. Indeed, it appears that synchronicities
can at times deliver very pointed messages from other minds. I believe that
Nelson-Isaacs’ theory can accommodate and even help to explain this aspect
of the phenomenon, and his book would be even stronger if it contained a
discussion of this possibility.
Nelson-Isaacs’ book could also have benefited from a comparison
between his ideas and other theories that connect synchronistic phenomena
to quantum physics: for instance, the entanglement theory proposed by
Walter von Lucadou, Hartmann Römer, and Harald Walch (2007).
In spite of these minor deficiencies, however, Living in Flow is a highly
valuable addition to the popular literature on synchronicity. There are not
enough works out there that emphasize the role we play in creating our
own synchronistic experiences, and this book is an important step toward a
better understanding of the process by which our own minds determine the
evolution of the world we observe.
SHARON HEWITT RAWLETTE
sharon.rawlette@gmail.com
References Cited
Rawlette, S. H. (2019). The Source and Significance of Coincidences: A Hard Look at the Astonishing
Evidence.
von Lucadou, W., Römer, H., & Walach, H. (2007). Synchronistic phenomena as entanglement
correlations in Generalized Quantum Theory. Journal of Consciousness Studies 14, 50–74.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Article
Full-text available
Synchronistic or psi phenomena are interpreted as entangle-ment correlations in a generalized quantum theory. From the principle that entanglement correlations cannot be used for transmitting information, we can deduce the decline effect, frequently observed in psi experiments, and we propose strategies for suppressing it and improving the visibility of psi effects. Some illustrative examples are discussed
The Source and Significance of Coincidences: A Hard Look at the Astonishing Evidence
  • S H Rawlette
Rawlette, S. H. (2019). The Source and Significance of Coincidences: A Hard Look at the Astonishing Evidence.