There are many theories about how tarot works and why messages from the cards seem to appear out of nowhere. In this post I am going to cover one of the most plausible explanations – Conceptual Blending.
Theories on how tarot works range from the supernatural and mystical – spiritual guides, higher self – to the psychological and just simple intuition. No one really knows the true answer. Conceptual blending seems to be one of the most likely explanations and is one I personally believe provides most of the rationale as to how tarot actually works.
So, What exactly is conceptual Blending?
Creativity expert Michael Michalko’s book ‘Creative Thinkering’ explains conceptual blending from a creative thinking perspective. Michalko states that conceptual blending is widely used in the business world, the arts, the sciences and several other sectors to solve problems.
- Is a cognitive process
- Involves taking a random stimulus which could be any object that is not associated with your problem in any way.
- You think of all the characteristics and attributes of this random stimulus in combination with your problem.
- The blending of the random stimulus and the problem causes the mind to try to find links between the two in your conscious and subconscious.
- When a link is found this results in a new idea that could not have been obtained from logical thinking. This is creative thinking.
Example of Conceptual Blending in Action
Before diving into conceptual blending in tarot, it is probably a good idea to demonstrate how conceptual blending has actually worked for me rather than read examples in books.
I very recently broke my little toe in a act of idle minded clumsiness. Not the most serious of injuries but very painful and I was advised to rest and elevate my foot. I also like to drink coffee and live in a maisonette (a flat with different levels). I discovered I would make my coffee and then sometimes forget to take it upstairs and going up and down the stairs was a painful chore.
The obvious answer would be to put a visual prompt somewhere I could see that said ‘Remember to take your coffee upstairs!’ But I don’t like sticking things up so I wanted another solution. Using the idea of conceptual blending I chose a random stimulus by closing my eyes, turning around slowly to the count of 10 and then pointing before I opened my eyes. I ended up pointing at some pandemic appropriate hand sanitiser gel.
Thinking about all the attributes of this hand gel combined with the problem of how I could remember to take my coffee upstairs I realised that the container is easy to carry and you can get the gel whenever you want. I could do the same thing if I put my coffee in a thermos flask! Bingo! I didn’t own a thermos flask so this wasn’t something I would have immediately thought of.
After buying a thermos flask I then kept it upstairs to I could have hot coffee throughout the afternoon without having to go the kitchen downstairs. Result.
Would I have thought of using a thermos flask without the conceptual blending? Maybe, but I wasn’t used to using a flask myself so it wasn’t immediately obvious. Conceptual blending helped me solve this issue in a way that I may not have considered for awhile.
Conceptual Blending & Tarot
If you Google ‘Tarot conceptual blending’ you will realise that there is a growing understanding that conceptual blending is being understood as the means by which tarot provides seemingly mystical answers out of thin air. Longtime tarot reader and author Vincent Pitisci has also explored conceptual blending and tarot in several of his books, namely ‘Radical Tarot‘ and ‘Bare Bones Tarot.’
Pitisci argues that the tarot card acts as the random stimulus and that the tarot spread position it’s placed in – the spread being the question separated into all the aspects you need answered – results in conceptual blending. When you read a tarot card you are blending all the meanings of the card and the picture with the question. Your mind will find a link between the two and an answer appears. It is a higher order cognitive process, not a supernatural or mystical phenomena.
Implications For Tarot Reading
So, if we assume that conceptual blending is how tarot works, there are some implications for tarot that it’s worth bearing in mind.
Astrology, Qabalah and other Esoteric elements are not necessary
Esoteric elements of tarot such as astrology and the Qabalah do contribute to the reading. But only in so much that they provide meanings that you can blend with the question. Some people, myself included, read historical tarot decks without using esoteric elements and some people do not use meanings at all. But the tarot still works. It is the meaning added that is important, not the astrology or Qabalah itself. You could use anything to add meaning to the tarot such as the qualities of plants and the tarot still works.
The Tarot Spread is as important as the cards
In many tarot books there is an overabundance of emphasis on the symbology in tarot cards. For example, the red feather in the Fool card in the RWS tarot. There is actually relatively little emphasis on the importance of the tarot spread.
The tarot spread acts as the question. If we assume that conceptual blending is the reason that tarot works then it’s important that the spread positions cover the various aspects required to answer our question. The symbology on the cards is only important in that it adds meanings we can blend with spread positions. But different decks have different symbology yet most tarot decks still work. Therefore, the symbology on the cards is not actually very important.
The upshot of all of this is that we should actually spend as much time designing or carefully choosing our tarot spreads as we do on looking at the cards.
I talk about how to create your own tarot spread here.
There is no such thing as a ‘Correct’ Card Meaning
Because any meanings we attach to the cards work, it is not necessary to learn the ‘appropriate’ card meanings. Buy any two tarot books, each from a different author, and you will find they have different meanings for any particular card. Yet those different meanings will still help you read the card. And some people don’t even use meanings. Whatever meaning you attach to a card will work for you.
Tarot is not a supernatural, mystical process
With conceptual blending, we have no need for a supernatural explanation for why answers seem to spring out of thin air. Now we know it is due to a cognitive process occurring in the conscious and subconscious. Conceptual blending also puts paid to the Catholic Church’s view that tarot is a gateway to demons and other evil spirits.
Tarot is not nonsense
Many tarot sceptics deride tarot as being complete nonsense. Well, we can say that tarot definitely works because we now have a better understanding of how the mind works.
Putting the Theory into practice
Here’s an example of conceptual blending using tarot that I used to solve another issue around my broken toe.
I broke my toe because I banged it off a chest of drawers while walking barefoot. I do not normally wear footwear indoors although I do own a pair of slippers. I needed to protect my toe from further stubbing but trying to break a habit of a lifetime and wear slippers was challenging. I would start to wear slippers but then forget to put them on when leaving my bedroom or living room so I needed a reminder (not a visual cue stuck to the wall).
So, here’s the tarot to the rescue:
I randomly drew the Queen of Wands from the Melanated Classic Tarot and asked the question:
‘How can I remember to put on my slippers before leaving a room so at to protect my toe?‘
So, I looked at the Queen of Wands above in combination with this question. I thought about everything I knew about the Queen of Wands and the artwork. What eventually stood out to me was the cat.
I own a cat and one thing he does – like most cats – is wait and scratch at a closed door wanting to be let in. If I closed a door, he would be there. And that’s how I found a link between the card and my problem. I needed a reminder when I reached the door of the room to put my slippers on. My answer was to place an old slipper or a shoe at each door so that when I reached the door I would see the footwear and be reminded to wear my slippers! It worked amazingly well. Without the reminders I might have banged my toe again (I did bang my foot wearing slippers but my toe was protected. Yes, I am accident prone!)
Conceptual blending resulting in a spark of intuition.
I have used other random objects (a dressing gown and a decorative candle holder!) to find solutions to problems and they have all resulted in answers I would not have thought of otherwise. This conceptual blending stuff really works!
So that’s it then? Conceptual Blending has all the answers?
I believe that conceptual blending is very likely the main reason tarot works but i’m keeping an open mind. I do believe in meaningful coincidences and conceptual blending does not manage to explain to me meaningful synchronicity in tarot. Example, while you are shuffling the deck and a card jumps out. Then that same card is the one drawn or the card in the prominent position. Even more suspicious when that same card appears in single card draws and small spreads repeatedly over a short period of time.
I’m also not suggesting that people who hold a supernatural or mystical view of the tarot are wrong. All beliefs are valid. But when a tarot sceptic comes up to you and says that tarot is BS, you can turn around and say ‘It’s all in the mind.’