The following is a chopped version of my earlier post “How Tarot Works,” designed to be less snarky and more direct to how Tarot works. If you want the full-on snark, it’s still available here. Sorry for the semi-repost, but TL;DR is a horrible thing.
There is the reason that Tarot seems to work “like magic,” and then there is the real, psychological reason why Tarot can work, the resulting emotions and insight so powerful that you feel you have, indeed, had a conversation with Divinity.
Let me start with the reason it seems to work; this applies now not only to Tarot but to all forms of divination. Most of us are familiar with the silly party trick of putting “Wizard of Oz” on the DVD player, putting the volume to mute, and then queuing it up to play simultaneously with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Yes, I’ve done it, too, and stared at the screen in amazement as Dorothy’s lips begin to move in time to the lead guitar solo while she talks to the three hired men.
People who don’t know what they’re talking about will blather on about Jung and “synchronicity” at this point, but the psychological phenomenon really at work here is a little thing called apophenia, or simply put, the human brain’s tendency to group random patterns and align them so they coincide to produce some deep meaning. Faced with a random juxtaposition of visual and auditory input, our brains will organize chaos into order and find patterns and alignments between what the ears hear and the eyes see, even where none exist. Even more amazing, our brains will even delay our perception of one or the other of the senses involved, to fool us into thinking that an action on the screen and a feature of the soundtrack align exactly, when in many cases they were misaligned by as much as a half a second. Our brains simply fool ourselves into seeing Dorothy’s lips move along with the music.
So, when faced with a mysterious system of symbols filled with emotionally charged meaning, we will assign deep significance to every card drawn, regardless of the fact that the rational brain knows that it is witnessing a randomly selected group of cards. The patterns leap to mind, and ultimately tell the story you want to hear.
It’s actually quite understandable: we’re designed for pattern recognition. Our brain has whole sections devoted to this process of grasping the timing of reoccurring events, which allowed our ancient ancestors to predict when to plant crops or move the herds. These neurons provide a useful service even today, helping us remember work routines and predicting our friends’ reactions to our snarky monologues, but modern psychologists have shown how easily our brains can be fooled, and how our perceptions can be altered by our own biases.
Despite all logic, reason, and even lack of proof, we still swear that Dorothy’s lips moving in synch with Roger Waters’ guitar is way too close to be a coincidence.
That is why we believe Tarot works.
But how does Tarot really work? Well, it’s in fact quite simple, and due to a similar part of the brain, the dedicated neural structure responsible for putting events into sequence, creating coherent narratives and creating histories.
Did you ever take a basic psychology course in college or high school? And, when studying the standard personality indicators, did you come across the one where the subject is given a picture and told to make up a short paragraph or three about what’s going on in the picture? Kind of like inkblots (Rorschach), but with photographs? The test itself is called the ‘thematic apperception indicator,’ if you like to know that sort of thing. The basic idea is that we, as humans, create stories for ourselves, based on our own beliefs, feelings, and attitudes. More to the point, we can get a pretty good ‘snapshot’ of a person’s psychological makeup, at least for that point in time, from the themes and tone of the story told in response to any given picture.
Now, consider: the characters, events and icons of the Tarot have been around for at least a couple few centuries, and were already recognized clichés and stereotypes even before the cards became standard. Moreover, the pictures on them are pretty basic, generic slices of human existence: interference, love, betrayal, sex, death, futility, struggle, joy – we all know and understand these concepts. The cards themselves, though sometimes cryptic in design, will still evoke the general mood of their title, enough that the ten of wands – oppression – is nearly always someone under a huge burden. Similarly, the two of cups (love) will usually show a couple in amorous embrace, the nine of pentacles (wealth) will show fabulous riches, and a really good nine of swords (cruelty) is almost painful to look at. It’s like a picture storybook, but one where you can shuffle the pages into random order to change the story and create new ones.
And when you create stories using these cards, you can, by mindfully observing what themes and meanings you attach to those symbols, gain a deeper understanding of your own mindset and your own internal mental filters which effect how you interact with the world around you. It doesn’t matter which card comes up when; it’s how you interpret them.
The symbols of the Tarot deck, used in this narrative fashion, become points on a grid upon which the subject weaves the story; the more complex the grid and more varied the symbols, the greater the ability of the subject to express the story of their own mind. The tradition of Tarot offers a rich tapestry of symbols and a wealth of spreads that can, with the active participation of the subject, be used to create astonishingly accurate pictures of that person’s attitudes, feelings, fears, hopes, and dreams – small wonder that people attribute such powers to these cards, never realizing that the magic, per se, is actually occurring within their own skulls!
And, just as the best indicator of where you’re going is which direction you’re pointed, yes, to some extent, the cards can provide you with a good idea about the decisions you’re facing and how you feel about what future might arise from those decisions. Given that, it’s not hard for a mature and aware individual to take the stories from the cards as timely parables, useful as a tool for navigating your mental landscape and thus your life.
Tell the future? Bullshit.
Give you helpful information to face that future? Most definitely. That’s what good divination – real divination – is about. The cards are simply a useful set of metaphors; not quite reality, but a workable model.
Just remember that it’s a metaphor; it’s what you make of it, nothing more – and nothing less.