Interweaving tarot and creativity: Articles
Whatever comes up: Associations and creativity

Why use stimuli like random words or tarot cards to solve problems?

Ideas do not arrive out of the blue, even if that is how it seems.

Ideas happen when information—existing or new—collides with associations, knowledge or memories, and something new is created.

We already know that brainstorming with random stimuli increases the number of ideas (Howard, 2010), and that images are more effective stimuli than words (Guo & McLeod, 2014).

But why should this be?

The following list is in no particular order:

  • Random stimuli offer the “new information” that merges with existing information (the problem) to form new ideas.

If I use a dictionary to select a random word and my finger lands on “elephant,” I have to somehow connect “elephant” to my problem. This tickles the imagination to produce (often weird) associations, and so new ideas.

In the same way, when you add a tarot card to the problem, your imagination has to come up with connections between the card and the problem.

  • Stimuli force you to regard the problem from a fresh perspective. You will now approach the problem with an elephant somehow involved.

  • Using stimuli offers a richer, more inspiring experience. After all, you now have an elephant to consider.

  • When you try to solve a problem, you are using your ‘left brain’, i.e. your analytical mind. When you use your imagination, you are using your ‘right brain,’ i.e. the associative, imaginative function. The two ‘halves’ combined will give you more idea power.

  • You will come up with more ideas when stimulated by a word or image than with a blank page before you.

  • A stimulus takes you to unexpected places you would not have visited with your own thoughts alone. Adding your imagination to the problem opens your mind to unusual ideas that dwelling on the problem alone would not have done. After all, you now have an elephant.

  • Being confronted with a problem could make you feel as if you are in a fog. With a stimulus, you have something specific to focus on.

  • You are focusing on the problem but at the same time broadening your horizons to include an elephant.

  • The random word or image you add to the problem often provokes laughter, which opens up the creativity channels.

Research at the University of Michigan shows that laughter causes a rush of endorphins, resulting in a burst of energy and creativity (Couger, 1995). Even more research suggests sarcasm, an aggressive form of humour, increases creativity (Huang, Gino & Galinsky, 2015).

Researchers also point out that thinking up an idea is similar to making a joke, in that two unrelated ideas are combined in a surprising way (Hatcher, 2018).

  • Related to humour is a playful, uninhibited mood (Zabelina & Robinson, 2010). Many brainstorming meetings start with an ‘icebreaker’ designed to, well, break the ice. Talking about an elephant when you are trying to solve a problem will lift the mood, and you had better feel playful, or the elephant will sit on you.

  • When your focus is directed to an unrelated word or image, it decreases the stress of dealing with a problem. Elephants will do that for you. You are doing something more productive than staring at the problem or going around in circles. Several studies have found that high stress and anxiety is related to lower creativity (Kaufman, 2009).

  • Stimuli can evoke associations or emotions, which in turn stimulates the imagination. Tarot cards in particular are designed to be evocative. A tarot card evokes associations with its ambiguous image, symbols, and colours, as well as the layers of meaning that have accumulated around the cards.

Related articles

Stimuli to trigger creativity


Couger, D. J. (1995). Creative problem solving and opportunity finding. Boyd & Fraser.

De Bono, E. (1979). Lateral thinking: A textbook of creativity. London: Ward Lock Educational.

Eysenck, H. J. (1995). Genius: The natural history of creativity. Cambridge University Press.

Guo, J., & McLeod, P. L. (2014). The impact of semantic relevance and heterogeneity of pictorial stimuli on individual brainstorming: An extension of the SIAM model. Creativity Research Journal, 26(3), 361–367.x. DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2014.929433.

Hatcher, G., Ion, W., Maclachlan, R., Marlow, M., Simpson, B., & Wodehouse, A. (2018). Evolving improvised ideation from humour constructs: A new method for collaborative divergence. Creativity and Innovation Management, 27(1), 91–101. DOI: 10.1111/caim.12256.

Howard, T. J., Dekoninck, E. A., & Culley, S. J. (2010). The use of creative stimuli at early stages of industrial product innovation. Research in Engineering Design, 21(4), 263–274. DOI: 10.1111/caim.12256.

Huang, L., Gino, F., & Galinsky, A. D. (2015). The highest form of intelligence: Sarcasm increases creativity for both expressers and recipients. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 131, 162–177. DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2015.07.001.

Kaufman, J. C. (2009). Creativity 101 (ebook). Springer.

VanGundy, A. B. (1995). Brain boosters for business advantage: Ticklers, grab bags, blue skies, and other bionic ideas. Pfeiffer.

Zabelina, D. L., & Robinson, M. D. (2010). Child’s play: Facilitating the originality of creative output by a priming manipulation. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 4(1), 57–65. DOI: 10.1037/a0015644.


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