Just about anyone who has ever done a tarot reading and marveled at its accuracy has wondered, “How does it work?” The answer to this question depends greatly on our personal beliefs about spirituality, philosophy, and the way the world works, and there are many possible theories. On one end of the spectrum, many tarotists believe their readings are guided by a conscious force, whether that be God/dess, an angel or spiritual guide, or one’s higher self. At the other end of the spectrum are tarotists of the psychological school, who believe that tarot cards can only reflect projections of what is in the mind of the client (and the reader), and who use a more interactive style of reading similar to counseling.
Then there are the in between possibilities, which form the subject of this article – those who may not believe that a conscious force is guiding each reading, but who nevertheless believe there is more going on than simple psychological projection. I confess to falling in this middle ground.
Since most of my readings are conducted via e-mail, without the client even seeing the cards until after the reading is completed, there is little possibility that her projections are influencing my reading, nor that I am reading subtle body-language clues that help me interpret the cards. Yet, I receive so much positive feedback for my readings, even for those that are very detailed and specific, that I cannot believe that the way the cards fall is not linked to the client’s actual circumstances somehow. If I did not think that were so, I could not ethically continue doing this type of tarot reading.
So being a scientist at heart, I have to ask myself, “How does it work?” Whatever it is, it has to fit some basic criteria:
- Distance does not affect it, the client can be anywhere in the world
- There is no apparent exchange of energy between the reader and the client
- It is capable of focusing on a specific client’s circumstances
- It is capable of affecting the physical layout of the cards
I do not consider myself telepathic or psychic, so I tentatively rule out these mechanisms – although I don’t discount the possibility that tarot cards or other tools may facilitate such abilities in people that are not otherwise aware of them. So let’s look at some other interesting possibilities – quantum physics and Jung’s theory of synchronicity – which between them may satisfy the above criteria.
While many will argue that it is still not proven that these mechanisms could reliably influence physical objects such as tarot cards, they come closer than any other ideas I have seen in explaining what could be happening, and if nothing else, are fascinating to think about.
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Quantum mechanics is a branch of physics originally developed to explain the behavior of very small particles, such as photons and electrons, which did not appear to behave the same way as larger objects. Large objects follow certain predictable laws of physics, called Newtonian mechanics, which had previously been developed.
For example, when you push a ball with a certain force, it will move with a certain speed in a certain direction. If you know everything about the situation, such as the ball’s weight and the amount of force you use, you can predict exactly what will happen.
The object will behave the same way whether you are watching it or not, according to unchanging laws of cause and effect. These days, we know that all things, no matter their size, are subject to quantum mechanics; however, it is generally not possible to observe these effects in large objects, and Newtonian mechanics are still perfectly good for describing their behavior.
When scientists began studying small particles, they found that Newtonian physics no longer held true. Things no longer had to have a cause to produce an effect – for example, radioactive particles decay for no apparent reason.
Having measured their behavior in the past, we can predict the probability of a radioactive decay in a given period of time, but we cannot determine when or why it will actually happen. Nor is it likely that we ever will be able to, since particles of this size behave according to probabilities, and not specific chains of action and reaction.
Another example is that very small particles cannot be determined to be in an exact place. Instead, they exist in a kind of “probability-space” – there is a certain probability of them being here, and a certain probability of them being there. Not only that, they aren’t really either here or there, they are both here and there at the same time! In fact, scientists recently divided an atom into two of its wave-functions (another term for probability-space) – essentially creating a situation in which the whole atom was both in one place and in another, at the same time.
This is all pretty mind-boggling, but there are some relevant aspects to it. One is that, at a very basic fundamental level, particles are connected to one another and somehow seem to “know” what state other particles are in, even when the distance is too great for them to somehow be transmitting energy or information back and forth. The deeper we go, the more things seem to be interconnected in ways that don’t require a transfer of energy. If things could be connected in this way, it seems possible that a connection could be made between a tarot reading in one place and the state of information in another place (the client’s environment).
Second, things at this level all behave as probabilities, not as objects with a fixed behavior. So if we are receiving information through these basic interconnected pathways, most likely we are working with probabilities, rather than fixed outcomes. Most of the time, we’ll receive the most probable information about the situation – but rarely, we may receive improbable information.
If we do enough readings, the odds are that eventually we’ll get something showing up in our reading that is actually unlikely to happen. We’ve all experienced that – a reading that just doesn’t seem to click or which seems way off, on rare occasions.
The odd things about quantum particles is that they exist in probability-space until we look at them. As soon as we make an observation of them, we can’t avoid affecting the system in such a way that their wave-forms collapse and they “choose” one state or another to be in.
And from then on, they stay in that state. It’s almost as if, as long as we’re not looking, everything is fluid and anything is possible.
As soon as we decide to look, one or the other probability is chosen as a fixed reality. This is odd because it suggests that the state of the world is not independent of our conscious observation of it – an idea which runs counter to modern science at a very fundamental level.
An interesting question to ponder is, does that fact that we’ve looked at it change the situation? The most likely answer is yes, it does. According to quantum mechanics, at least, we would have observed a situation and fixed certain aspects of it by doing a reading on it. However, it is only fixed in that moment of time, and future actions change the situation again.
The exciting thing about quantum mechanics is that, the further down toward fundamental reality you go, the more interconnected the world seems to be and the less fixed reality appears to become. Interactions between particles are no longer limited by time and space, and the “rules” of cause and effect fall by the wayside. Indeed, reality itself is apparently affected by our observation or perception of it. This opens the door to the possibility that a lot of things are simply not the way the scientific world has been assuming for the last several hundred years.
On the other hand, there is not yet any proof that quantum effects can be observed in the behavior of large objects, such as tarot cards, or that the interconnected pathways are specific enough to transmit the kind of information that appears in a tarot reading (although people are thinking about quantum computers and instantaneous transmission of information). Which is where synchronicity comes in…
Carl Jung, the noted psychologist and professor, noticed that many of his patients and he himself had had experiences in which “coincidences” seemed to play a meaningful role, but which were too unlikely to have occurred by random chance. For example, a patient might dream of a particular butterfly, only to encounter a real butterfly of that species during a counseling session the next day in which the patient was describing the dream. In his view, these events were most likely to occur when the patient needed the experience to trigger a breakthrough, and it was somehow attracted to her.
At this time, theories of relativity and quantum mechanics were just being developed, and Jung was friendly with Einstein and Pauli, with whom he corresponded and encountered in society.
Jung recognized in the principles of quantum mechanics a possible explanation for the phenomenon he was observing, which he called “synchronicity.”
He postulated that in addition to the cause-and-effect relationships with which we are familiar, there is another “connecting principle” which is acausal in nature. In other words, two things may be connected without having any apparent cause and effect relationship.
Although Jung was not particularly conversant with tarot, he was fascinated by the I Ching, and suggested that synchronicity could be responsible for the way that divination using I Ching might work. He also conducted experiments with astrology to test the ideas of synchronicity, but was not entirely certain that the motions of the planets did not in fact have a causal relationship to our personalities and events during our lives.
In his treatise on synchronicity, Jung discusses a series of experiments on ESP, which demonstrated to him that there could be a connection between physical objects (e.g., psy cards) and the images one sees in one’s mind, even though there could not possibly be a causal relationship between the two. He also discusses precognitive dreams as an example of this phenomenon. One of the most interesting aspects of this research is that it showed that these various “psychic” abilities were not affected by distance or time, similar to the way that quantum particles can be connected regardless of their distance apart. In fact, many of the precognitive dreams on record and which he experienced with his patients did not coincide in time with the events with which they were connected, although they were often within few days.
Because these synchronistic events generally do involve physical objects, they provide a possible explanation for tarot readings and other divination techniques. Jung argues that our scientific world became so steeped in the concepts of cause and effect over the last few centuries that any phenomena that did not fit that model were ignored or ridiculed. Now that it has been demonstrated that other models lie at the very basis of our physical world, there is the possibility that synchronistic events may gain more credence in the larger world as well.
Unfortunately, synchronistic events are next to impossible to study, almost by definition, since the scientific method is based on repeatable cause and effect. Since they don’t occur with any predictable regularity, it is difficult to even prove their existence. This points out one possible difficulty with this theory as a basis for tarot reading – it would have to be a mechanism that works with reasonable reliability, over and over, whenever a tarot reader wishes to do a reading.
Most synchronistic events happen in an unplanned manner, without regularity. The question is, can this acausal connecting mechanism be harnessed and used by the tarot reader in a conscious, directed manner?
One thing Jung noticed about the ESP and astrology research was that the results depended on the subject’s frame of mind. For example, if a subject was bored or disbelieving, he or she would not score well on an ESP test compared to a subject that was enthusiastic about the test. Similarly, when asked to randomly select subjects’ charts for an experiment on astrological conjunctions related to marriage, an experienced astrologer would synchronistically pair up a higher percentage of subjects with the appropriate conjunctions without ever having looked at the charts. A computer-generated matching would, on the other hand, select only an average number of people with the appropriate conjunctions. This effect was entirely unexpected and not part of the original astrological study.
These results suggest that, even if the underlying mechanisms exist, the ability to make use of synchronistic approaches is dependent on one’s frame of mind and belief. To some extent, tarot readers know this implicitly. Our readings are better when we are in a positive and receptive frame of mind, and not doubting our abilities. It may also suggest that we need to direct our thoughts along the appropriate pathways to get the correct results. If everything is connected at some basic level, we could get any result at all if we did not direct our thoughts toward a certain person and the circumstances and energies surrounding them. This may be especially true of long-distance or e-mail readings, in which the client is not present.
Although the ESP and astrological studies showed that the predictive relationship was much higher than could be accounted for by random chance, it is interesting to note that it is also much too low to be considered “reliable.” In other words, even though it seems to demonstrate a connection, you couldn’t make a living off of it as a gambler or a psychic because your predictions would still be wrong a good percentage of the time. Even tarot readers have noticed that it is difficult to make yes/no predictions of the outcomes of events, such as sports or political contests. Tarot may be much better at working with other types of information, such as the energies and dynamics at work in a situation, than with definitive factual information.
In summary, quantum physics and synchronicity provide some concepts that could explain how tarot reading works, in the vast middle ground between divine direction and pure psychology. Although the current status of either of these concepts is not sufficiently developed to definitively demonstrate that this is the case, they do at least provide some plausible mechanisms and ideas that are consistent with our experiences as tarot readers. And they’re fun to think about.
By Alexandra Genetti