The Psychology of Tarot

Readers of this blog know that I am open to non-reductionist theories of Tarot. In other words, I don’t necessarily think it’s possible to reduce the operation of Tarot reading to just “psychology.” Nevertheless, I believe that having a solid grounding in the psychology of Tarot is necessary for understanding possibilities beyond psychology.

Addressing skeptics

First, when we want to “explain” or “debunk” Tarot, to show how it “works,” what are we explaining? Usually, we are explaining its supposed capacity to “tell the future.”

While some “debunkers” of Tarot just state unequivocally that it cannot predict the future they go farther and say Tarot, when properly used, should only apply as a kind of psychological mirror turned inwards. But I believe this is dishonest insofar as the vast majority of popular Tarot usage involves “fortune telling.” And sometimes it seems to “work.” How is this possible?

Most skeptics would chalk up the effectiveness of Tarot to two things:

-cold reading

-unconscious projection

Cold reading is only relevant when someone is being read by someone else, usually a professional. An example of cold reading is noticing a person is acting anxious and then using suggestive, leading questioning to “probe” the querant to see if they respond to suggestions related to common anxieties e.g. a bad relationship.

However, since the Tarot can “work” even if you are reading for yourself, I will not be discussing the techniques of cold reading. After all, how do you cold read yourself?

Furthermore, since cold reading is not based on “pure” Tarot reading i.e. purely going off the Tarot card symbols themselves, I am less interested in this. I do not doubt that some unscrupulous Tarot readers engage in cold reading, but I am interested in the psychology of Tarot as a system of archetypal images and how they interact with the conscious and unconscious mind in order to make predictions about the future.

Which leads me to the next common explanation of how the Tarot works: unconscious projection of some kind.

Tarot and the Unconscious

It should first be noted that saying the Tarot is merely an operation of the unconscious mind is hardly an “explanation” because we do not fully understand how the unconscious mind itself works.

Precisely because the unconscious is not available to the probing introspection of consciousness, the unconscious can be tricky to study. Usually, it is studied indirectly, and we make inferences about it. But it cannot be observed directly, either by ourselves or anyone else.

This is significant because, despite its opacity, some researchers have estimated that consciousness represents just 1% of the total operation of the mind, with everything else being subsumed under the operation of the unconscious in one way or another.

Furthermore, cognitive scientists and philosophers have long argued that perception itself is inherently predictive in nature [affiliate link]. In other words, the brain just is in the business of making predictions. The very act of reaching for a glass of water involves making certain predictions. The act of catching a baseball involves making predictions. Driving a car involves making predictions.

On this theory, literally, everything we do, from a cognitive perspective, involves making predictions [affiliate link]. This is happening on a deep level of the unconscious.

Thus, to say that Tarot reading is just “unconscious projection” is not an adequate explanation because the mind is constantly making projections into the future. We have to explain further what this entails. One such theory is called the “Predictive Processing” model. As Walsh et al. (2020) say in their paper, Evaluating the neurophysiological evidence for predictive processing as a model of perception

Predictive processing (PP) claims that the brain confronts the inherent ambiguity in sensory input by assembling “generative models” of the causes underlying sensory events. Generative models yield predictions about the pattern of sensory input that would be expected if the model’s estimate of the cause was correct. According to the dominant neural process account of PP, known as predictive coding, these predictions are sent cascading down the processing hierarchy, suppressing congruent incoming sensory signals, such that only the residual, unexplained components of sensory information remain to be fed forward to higher levels in the form of “prediction error.” The brain’s generative models continuously exploit these error signals to revise the probability assigned to perceptual hypotheses as this iterative process plays out across all levels of the processing hierarchy, until the network converges on a consistent representation of sensory causes. From this perspective, perception is the process of identifying the perceptual hypothesis that best predicts sensory input and hence, minimizes prediction error.

As an example, when we are driving we have predictive models in our head about what would happen if we turned the wheel left or right. These models are built up from years of experience of driving such that we have an extensive, unconscious knowledge base about our vehicles, driving conditions, road rules, and traffic flows. This is why it feels slightly weird at first if we drive someone else’s car: our “model” of driving is based on the car we use most frequently.

If we want to turn right, for example, we then get feedback confirming our “hypothesis” or “model” of what would happen. If our prediction was wrong and we ended up turning too far right than we expected, perhaps because the road is slippery, this feedback propagates upwards in the hierarchy as a “prediction error” that updates our model, and so on.

In other words, perception works because we have incredibly powerful models of the world built up over time into an all-encompassing knowledge base of the world. This knowledge base guides us in the world.

Predictive Tarot

So how does Predictive Processing relate to the psychology of Tarot? Well, it is my supposition that the brain does not just have “low level” hierarchies of predictive models related to perceptual or motor predictions, but also, incredibly abstract and symbolic models of the world based on deep, archetypal models of the world, even at a mythological or narrative level. Thus, when we pull The Fool, and we understand this to be a symbol of “new beginnings,” we are able to take a deep, unconscious, collection of interconnected metaphors and models of “new beginnings” and apply them to the future e.g. a new job, a new relationship, a new house, a new hobby, new spiritual journey, etc.

On the surface, none of these possibilities are similar in their surface-features except that they are “new” i.e. novel stimuli. But from a symbolic perspective, we recognize them as similar in sharing the property of novelty. And since the Predictive Processing theory supposes that we have predictive models at all levels of the hierarchy, we would also thereby have predictive models at the very highest level of our lives: the narrative level, the story of our lives which we are constantly spinning in order to create meaning and situate our Egos into the broader matrix of meaning.

As Julian Jaynes says in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind [affiliate link],

In consciousness, we are always seeing our vicarial selves as the main figures in the stories of our lives. In the above illustration, the narratization is obvious, namely, walking along a wooded path. But it is not so obvious that we are constantly doing this whenever we are being conscious, and this I call narratization. Seated where I am, I am writing a book and this fact is embedded more or less in the center of the story of my life, time being spatialized into a journey of my days and years…

The assigning of causes to our behavior or saying why. we did a particular thing is all a part of narratization. Such causes as reasons may be true or false, neutral or ideal. Consciousness is ever ready to explain anything we happen to find ourselves doing. The thief narratizes his act as due to poverty, the poet his as due to beauty, and the scientist his as due to truth, purpose and cause inextricably woven into the specialization of behavior in consciousness. 

But it is not just our own analog ‘I’ that we are narratizing; it is everything else in consciousness. A stray fact is narratized to fit with some other stray fact. A child cries in the street and we narratize the event into a mental picture of a lost child and a parent searching for it. A cat is up in. a tree and we narratize the event into a picture of a dog chasing it there. Or the facts of mind as we can understand them into a theory of consciousness. [emphasis mine]

Now we are prepared to understand the true psychology of Tarot:

When we lay down a spread of cards our mind instantly begins narratizing the images and symbols into a story that either attempts to explain the past or projects our story into the future. 

And since we know that the brain is inherently in the business of predicting, and has spent its entire life making predictions and getting feedback to improve its models of the world, we know the brain is pretty darn good at making predictions.

Furthermore, as Ian McGilchrist as shown in his masterwork The Mastery and His Emissary [affiliate link], the degree to which this processing is “holistic” is slightly lateralized, with the right hemisphere specializing in the fast, automatic, holistic, parallel, deep kind of processing which is associated with gnosis and other “intuitive” and creative modes of knowing i.e. the type of knowledge associated with gods and spirits (this is a variant of Julian Jaynes’ bicameral theory)

So is it any surprise that when we lay down The Fool and instantly make a prediction about the story of our life, that we can be right, at least some part of the time? Doing so is what our brains evolved to do.

Now, obviously, the world is a complex place. Our lives are infinitely complicated. And we are sure to get the details wrong a lot of the time. If predicting the world was easy we’d all be stock market millionaires. But compared to the stock market, when it comes to the archetypical, metaphorical structure of our life that outlines the story of life, it is far easier to predict where our lives are going even if the Tarot cards themselves are completely random. 

In fact, it is the randomness of the 78 Tarot cards that makes the “magic” even more effective, because it essentially acts as an archetypal, structured Rorschach inkblot upon which we can project our lives. This is what makes the Tarot quite effective as a psychological tool. Not because the gods themselves have deemed themselves fit to press their thumbs on the cosmic scale as we shuffle.

However, can I rule out altogether some kind of synchronicity effect a la quantum mechanics or “meaningful coincidence”? No. Not quite. Far stranger coincidences have happened. And I would be remiss if I were not agnostic to the possibility of some kind of interconnected causal web of quantum randomness that is beyond the capacity for 21st-century minds to comprehend.

However, in my experience with the Tarot, all the amazing and poignant coincidences of the Tarot I have experienced are explicable via an explanatory matrix of (1) narrative, predictive processing (2) coincidence and (3) the archetypal structure of the Tarot imagery, which is itself diverse and meaningful in itself so as to be applicable to almost any human event in its symbolic structure.

So is this a complete explanation of the psychology of Tarot? Hardly. I have barely scratched the surface. But I hope I have shown just how complicated the nature of prediction is and that the human brain-mind is quite capable of being successful in making predictions all by itself without the aid of the gods.

Related Links

How Tarot Works

Astrology, Tarot Cards, and Psychotherapy

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