It is assumed that tarot readers use either psychic or intuitive abilities. In fact, these are, almost always, among their skills. Querents usually come for a reading because they are looking for information outside the normal, rational processes for obtaining it. They want that “something extra,” even if it’s just entertainment.

What I want to query today is:

• Why are ‘psychic’ and ‘intuitive’ so often conflated into a single thing? (A web search on psychic + intuitive should convince you that the words often appear together to express the same thing.)
• As tarot readers do we know when we are using psychic rather than intuitive faculties and vice versa?

The terms psychic and intuitive actually describe two different processes that could be seen as opposite ends of a spectrum. One can even trigger another. By using both words together or interchangeably we attempt to cover all bases. Can we improve our skill in using these abilities? Yes. But it helps to differentiate between them— at least while developing them as skills.

Psychic is usually described as “extra sensory perception.” It accesses information beyond the reach of our normal senses. Thus, it is deemed paranormal; a sixth sense. The term psychic was first used by the French astronomer Camille Flammarion in the 1860s and, soon after, by the chemist William Crookes to describe the spiritualist medium Daniel Douglas Home. Originally it implied seership, prophecy or mediumship. Now it refers to a broad range of abilities including telepathy, clairvoyance, clairaudience, and precognition.

Psi research (parapsychology) has amassed enough evidence to convince all but a few of the most skeptical scientists, who have examined this evidence, of its existence. Even the CIA and then the military had what they called a “remote viewing” program from the early 1970s until 1995.

Intuition, on the other hand, is the completely normal functioning of human cognition. It is part of a bodily survival mechanism. It has been called gut feeling, a hunch, instinct or insight. It involves intelligence at work without conscious thought. Essentially it is the act or process of coming to direct knowledge without reasoning or inferring. With intuition we sense truth without explanations. Using unconscious forms of analogy and induction we instantly perceive connections and patterns. This sometimes results in a clear direction for action.

Both psychic awareness and intuition communicate to us through symbols, sensory feelings and emotions, which is one reason why they may be so hard to separate. With intuition, however, we can sometimes justify our hunches by backtracking and discerning sensory input and mental connections that only make sense after the fact. By contrast, with a true psychic impression a direct connection simply doesn’t exist, except, perhaps, when interpreting feelings and symbols in which the psychic impression can be cloaked.

I highly recommend two books for understanding and developing your intuition:

Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer.

The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker.

Gerd Gigerenzer is a director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. His research was a major source for Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink. In Gut Feelings, he describes intuition as a judgment that appears quickly, whose underlying reasons we are not fully aware of, yet is strong enough to act upon. “It ignores information, violates the laws of logic, and is the source of many human disasters.” On the other hand, as Gigerenzer shows, it can outwit the most sophisticated reasoning and computational strategies.

Intuitional skills can be learned. Gigerenzer explains how it often works through simple rules of thumb that take advantage of cognitive abilities, recognition memory, social instincts, and visual tracking.

Gavin de Becker, in The Gift of Fear, says, “Intuition is the journey form A to Z without stopping at any other letter along the way. It is knowing without knowing why.” True, this book focuses on high-stakes predictions: how to spot subtle signs of danger to avoid violence. Yet, it is one of the best and most compassionate books I know that tells you how to recognize and when to trust intuition.

How do you tell the difference between fear that is true and fear that is unwarranted? “Intuition is always learning,” de Becker tells us, “and though it may occasionally send a signal that turns out to be less than urgent, everything it communicates to you is meaningful. Unlike worry, it will not waste your time.”

Intuition comes to us through emotions, persistent thoughts, physical sensations, wonder, anxiety and humor. De Becker’s “elements of prediction,” along with Gigerenzer’s “rules of thumb,” can help you make better decisions than just relying on reason alone.


Intuition can arise during a tarot reading in countless ways. One of these is when symbols in several cards suddenly seem to come forward and link together to reveal a repeating or developing theme. Everything else can appear to recede in the face of the insistence and aliveness of these symbols. In face-to-face readings, subtle clues from the querent—including things picked up from so-called “cold reading”—will echo meanings in the cards, creating a kind of resonance. Words said by the querent can ring with truth, especially when they match keywords for cards in the spread.

Tarot readers can become much more aware of when and how they access intuition in a reading. They can then help a querent recognize when the querent’s own intuitions have been activated and may contain valuable truths.

The picture above is an amalgam of four cards from the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck. Can you identify them?

I’ll write later about psychic development and another important ability in reading tarot, empathy.