Zener Cards

15th August 2021. Reading Time: 6 minutes General. 6451 page views. 1 comments.

In the early 1930's, J.B Rhine experimented with subjects to test if it was possible to telepathically send an image from person to person. Here is all you need to know about Zener cards and how to conduct your own ESP experiment with Zener cards.

When you think of the paranormal and you think of cards, most people tend to think of Tarot Cards or Angel Cards. While these cards are generally used to give guidance, there is a special deck of cards that were originally designed to test ESP (Extra Sensory Perception). They are called Zener Cards (Rhine Cards).

“I’m studying the effect of negative reinforcement on ESP ability.” Dr. Peter Venkman (Ghostbusters)

What are Zener Cards?

In the late 1800’s, researchers would use regular playing cards to test telepathy.  In the 1930’s, famous parapsychologist J.B Rhine and his colleague Dr Karl Zener wanted to expand this research by creating their own format.  Working together, initially Rhine used cards with letters from the alphabet or numbers.  They eventually evolved over time to consist of 5 cards of 5 distinct symbols (making a deck of 25). The symbols themselves are very distinct, so that they could not be confused. The aim of the cards was to test a person’s mental telepathy abilities.  Rhine dubbed these as Zener cards named after his colleague, however eventually went on to refer to them as ESP cards. 

How do you use Zener Cards?

There are 5 cards of each symbol. The deck is shuffled. There are 2 people which participate in the experiment and a third who acts as a moderator. The participants are the sender and a receiver. The aim is quite simple. The sender picks a card from the deck. They then try to mentally send the image to the receiver. The receiver then concentrates and says the first image which comes to mind. This continues over a certain amount of time and then an overall success rate is calculated.

The experiment is not without its flaws. As there are 25 cards in the deck with 5 cards of each symbol, there is a 20 percent chance that someone would correctly guess the symbol at random. It was also acknowledged by Rhine that his experiment could not determine if the receiver was guessing randomly, if they were receiving the image telepathically or if they were receiving the image through clairvoyance (such a medium receiving the message). This meant that even if there was a high percentage of the cards being guessed correctly, there was no way to prove it was through ESP.

Did the experiment work?

Rhine himself claimed to have tested over 90,000 subjects with this experiment and came to the conclusion that ESP had been demonstrated and existed. Those who have tried to recreate his experiments found that the circumstances were not as controlled as they perhaps should have been such as how the cards are shuffled. It was also found that under the right lighting, the outline of the image could be seen through the back of a card. This was rectified by blacking out the back of the card. However for this and many other reasons, Rhine copped quite a lot of criticism for making such a bold claim and some even claimed that there was some cheating involved with sitters taking visual cues from the tester. Over time his methods of controlling the experiment improved, but like anything in the paranormal, people were skeptical, and the scientific and skeptic community were not convinced that it was anything more than a random game of odds. 

“It is to be expected that these experiments will meet with a considerable measure of incredulity… but this reaction is as old as this history of Science:’ J B Rhine

The results themselves indicated that certain people were capable of getting results well above the baseline which a lot of researchers believe is an indication of ESP ability being present.

J.B Rhine’s wife Louisa also played a part in this research, working with special cards to test telepathy in children.   In her findings published in the Journal of parapsychology in 1937 Louisa writes: 

“17 children were used as subjects in two matching tests.  In the first test, cards bearing large symbols were shuffled in with cards bearing small symbols.  In the second test cards with five symbols were shuffled in with cards bearing only one.  No significant discrimination was found in either case, although the total scores were high enough to be indicate of an extra-chance factor”

Image Source: The Scientist Magazine

In 1937, Rhine’s ESP cards were made commercially available with instructions included for people to conduct their very own test at home.  You can still buy them to this day!  

How to conduct your own experiment

I would suggest having at least 3 people. You would need a sender, a receiver, and a moderator. It is the moderator’s role to ensure that everything is above board and there is not cheating or misleading etc. They are also there to record the results. Set a number of times to read a card. I would suggest that 50 is a good number. It basically means you are going through the deck twice. I think. 25 would be too little and 100 would be starting to get a little bit too much but this is just my recommendation based on the odds. Shuffle the cards extensively and place all 25 of them face down individually. Ideally, there should be some sort of barrier between the sender and the receiver so that they cannot see each other. This is so the receiver cannot read facial expressions or accidentally see the image on the card as it is being turned over. The sender will then pick up a card and look at the image. The sender then ‘mentally’ sends the image to the receiver. The receiver then says which image they believe it is. The moderator will take a note of what the card actually is and then the receiver’s guess. It is important that the moderator and the sender do not show any sort of emotion or indicate if the answer is correct or not. It is also important not to tell the receiver the results until the very end. Continue this until all 25 cards have been transmitted. Go through the process again (make sure to properly reshuffle the cards). Once completed again, it is time to calculate the results. As there is a 1 in 5 chance of randomly guessing the correct card, Rhine used 20% as his benchmark. Any percentage of correct guesses above 20%, Rhine considered being a success.

Developing psychic ability

Of course not everyone has 3 people available to sit through a Zener card test.  The good news is that it is something you try for yourself.  Remember above I said there was no way to tell if a person was able to guess the symbol by using telepathy or clairvoyance?  Some people do solo Zener card tests to hone in on their abilities.

Sit in a quiet place where you can concentrate.  Shuffle the cards quite extensively.  Select one card and put it face down. Focus your thoughts and see if you can determine what the image is on the reverse of the card.  Write down your answer. Now turn the card over.  Write down the result.  Reshuffle and start again.  This is to stop a person unknowingly ‘counting cards’. After guessing 25 cards, from your results, you will be able to work out your percentage!  If you don't have Zener cards, make your own!

Why not try my online version?


Try your luck or practice your skills from the comfort of your home anywhere in the world!

Make sure to check the LLIFS Facebook page for Zener Card Sunday!  LLIFS will be releasing special 'niche' Zener inspired cards that will also double as an oracle in the near future.  




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  • Nathan Sterling 3 years ago

    These zener cards reminded me of an exceptional card game called ‘set’. The game is a great mental exercise to play with friends or alone- but also could be used to test ESP and use 3 criteria at once as opposed to just an image.
    I recommend set for anyone of any age. It is a great game and really makes your brain tired from thinking.
    Check it out!