How tarot works has more to do with the
functional nature of our own minds than it does with the cards
per se. However, I would not go so far as to say that the cards’
symbology is arbitrary to the point that one can use anything to
Here I will share insights derived from Neurobiology, Layered Texts, and Correlative Cosmologies (http://www.safarmer.com/ neuro-correlative.pdf) about some recently rediscovered and newly evaluated ways our minds work and how this contributes to a self-understanding of what we do in order to “make meaning” in our readings.
Correlative systems according to Farmer et al. are universal traits of premodern cultures. Magical, astrological, and divinational systems are found in the designs of villages, cities, temples, and court complexes; also found in the orders of gods, demons, Angels, and saints. Formal numerological systems where numbers are given qualitative symbolic meanings are also universal. Cosmologies of a hierarchical and temporal nature is an expression that reality consists of multiple levels, emanations, each mirroring all others in some fashion is a diagnostic feature of premodern cosmologies in general. Tarot cards share in this layered and mirroring understanding of how the world works and interconnects meaningfully with all. While the simplest forms correlative thought can be found in the realistic links perceived between objects and words or visual symbols and primitive magic-ritual systems. The near universality of these systems suggests that the deepest roots of correlative thought lay and neurobiological processes. Many of the traditional symbols found in the tarot partake of this linking between image and meaning. In the west the Presocratics philosophers represent one place to see the beginning of correlative systems. Aristotle and his Metaphysics (Book 1, 986a23) tells us that the Pythagorean’s claim that “there are 10 principles, which they arranged in two columns of cognates — limited and unlimited, odd and even, one and plurality, right and left, male and female, resting and moving, straight and curved, light and darkness, good and mad, square and oblong.”
More complex correlative systems grew rapidly in the following centuries. They can be seen in stoic and Gnostic sources, Neo-pythagorean and Neoplatonic traditions, hermetic and Orphic texts, influencing all of what we know of classical civilization.
Neurobiological foundations of
correlative thinking. If one looks at the brain, especially the
cortex – that is the thin outer brain layer responsible for all
high-level perceptual, motor, emotional, and cognitive
processing — underlies important links between brain
architecture and correlative systems. Farmer et al review three
principles of Neurobiology relevant to this topic (see text for
1. is the existence throughout the Neocortex of high degrees of structural symmetry, most dramatically in “the topographic maps” (a technical term for correlative brain structures — topographic mapping refers to the fact that spatial relations between tightly linked groups of neural cells or neural assemblies which are the basic units of cortical processing, are typically preserved in synaptic projections to other brain regions. (The topographical complements the holographic aspects of neural processing in the brain)
2. The hierarchical abstract of processes involved in perceptual and cognitive function of those maps. Structurally there is the two hemispheres, right and left, which deal with language processing and spatial processing respectively; the anterior posterior processing from perceptual to conceptual duplication; and the brain layers beginning with the reptilian brain stem, the mammalian brain center, the cortex to neocortex as the outer level. Hierarchical stacking of maps is recognized as a general feature of the neocortex, linking mono-and multi sensory maps in posterior areas of the brain with cognitive maps in more anterior regions. The result is a series of complexly nested systems in which “the frontal hierarchy is the mirror image of the posterior hierarchy,” — unconsciously adopting the most common premodern metaphor used to describe high-correlative systems.
3. Social bias in the early correlative systems, the mass of brain processing deals with social communicative processing and recognition. Over a century and a half of studies brain injured patients demonstrates that the largest part of cortical space is devoted to the social processes, such as face recognition, verbal communication, decoding of social clues, regulation of sexual behavior, and similar functions. Comparatively little space is devoted to abstract problem-solving. Parroting Durkheim we can now assert with some confidence that religious ideas and feelings have a neurological basis in our sensitivity to social space. It is important to note that the principles of topographic organization extend all the way to the pre-frontal cortex — suggesting that all higher categories of thought, and not just reconstructions of perceptual reality, are dependent on correlative processes. Finally studies of synesthesia, that psychedelic condition in which colors may be heard and sounds tasted, provides further suggestions that correlative thinking has a deep neurobiological root. One model of synesthesia pictures the condition as simply a heightened level of consciousness of multi sensual integration taking place continuously in all subjects just below the conscious level. This suggestion finds support in the fact that synesthesia can be readily induced in normal subjects through the use of hallucinogenic drugs — a standard means of producing heightened awareness of perceptual correspondence in premodern ritual traditions.
The fact that human emotions and consciousness can be reliably manipulated through systematic shifts in music, rhythm, color, light, and darkness, and other sensual input provides further suggestions of this nature — as do studies of correlative processes linking language and movement or research into other nonverbal social communications. The view that mild synesthesia may be involved in all aesthetic experience can be traced back at least to Goethe’s studies of color and emotions, and to later efforts by the French symbolists to develop natural theories of correspondence. One should note that Coleman-Smith artistically was related to the symbolist movement. And some members of the Golden Dawn did attempt to experiment with mind altering drugs.
At the most basic level our data
perceptual and cognitive processes are associative. Meditation,
like dreaming and daydreaming, are natural ways for our
cognitive emotional system to refresh itself to (re)establish
novel patterns as well as habitual ones. When we learn tarot
reading, we learn to use our imagination to associate the
symbols with a highly complex set of memories and experiences of
our own life and of the meaning and stories the symbols tell.
Many of these symbols are you evocative of dreams and dreams
function as a sort of a resetting of cognitive habits. Most of
our habits are common sense expectations built up over long
experience of the way the world works. However with tarot
reading we are seeking to enter the margins of this habit
formation to discover novel associations and connections, very
much the way dreams associate in ways that are astounding to our
conscious mind. It is one reason why it is so hard to remember
dreams because the associations are so outside of our normal
expectations and experience. Reading the tarot cards then can be
understood as to consciously dream. Most of us would call this
However I would also like to emphasize that much of what we call intuition is really a disguised sense of habit and normality of the way we have experienced the world. The creative edge of intuition than is what some scientists call counterintuitive processing. The random distribution of the cards in a reading evokes this exercise of counterintuitive processing. This is when our readings become creative, when we see new patterns in the cards and new meanings emerge as we proceed in the reading we go way beyond our expectations. Simply put tarot cards mix our natural associative processes of correlative systems and meanings which can be common sense and ordinary as well as dreamlike with a random jumble of cards newly distributed in a variety of patterns that suggest areas of association. The patterns the cards create can easily be as diverse, in fact more diverse than our natural language. This is why there never can be definitive meanings to the cards in isolation of their relationship to one another. Learning the cards is like learning the alphabet. Each letter is related to a sound and in some cases the letters suggest meaning. However it is in the combination of the letters, as in the cards, that we create words that have meaning and can be poetry. In approaching the singular meaning of the card then, we are usually given a variety of possible meanings, stories, emotional situations, by which to build up our own personal associations with the card. The more we read the card in context with other cards or by itself at different times in our life we create new associations and meanings for that card. Again the language analogy might help. We’ll learn to speak English but we learn to speak in distinctively unique and individual ways, developing unique habitual speaking vocabularies that are indicative of our personality and life experience. We can all recognize words that we normally don’t say, and if we were around the words enough we will probably start speaking them.
So it is with the tarot, we learn our associations and then we allow the associations to grow with our experience of the card. Eventually the cards become so richly nuanced in multiple meanings that they become a sort of personality for us. Another aspect of the associative correlative meanings is that the cards themselves are not embodied as sentences but rather are images that invoke clusters of metaphysical and spiritual ideas as well as personal scenarios of suffering, struggle, triumph, and joy.
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