Harry Houdini said…

“My brain is the key that sets my mind free.”

Harry always wore the good chains when company was over.


Harry Houdini – magician, performer, debunker. And, most importantly for our discussion today – escape artist. No chains could hold him, no lock could keep him down. Just when you thought that he had gotten himself stuck, he would reappear. Though he courted death many times in his escape artistry, it would not be this that finally did him in. Though his death was a surprise, he died free.

I found his word choice interesting – “My brain is the key that sets my mind free.” He seems to be treating his brain and his mind as two distinct things, the latter served in some way by the former. Why would he do that, and what did he really mean by it?

As with so many catchy quotes, finding the context can be really hard, and in this case I couldn’t quite pull it off. I’m going to have to improve my Google-fu if I’m going to keep this up. But since we can’t know what he was talking about at the time, we must only speculate. What is clear when you start researching escapology, however, is that it cannot be done by luck or by brute force. It requires a keen and disciplined mind – or brain, whichever – that allows you to not only create an intricate illusion capable of fooling even the best audiences, but that will allow you to do that while submerged underwater or buried alive.

In order to figure out where this quote is going, we need to consider the three elements contained within. The mind, first, is a fleeting, ephemeral thing. It wanders and drifts, flies up into the clouds and sometimes sinks to depths unimaginable. We have some control over it at the best of times, but most of the time our minds go off and do whatever they feel like doing.

For an escape artist, that is the best way to get yourself killed, or at least to tank your career. Houdini said of his work:

“My chief task has been to conquer fear. The public sees only the thrill of the accomplished trick; they have no conception of the tortuous preliminary self-training that was necessary to conquer fear… no one except myself can appreciate how I have to work at this job every single day, never letting up for a moment. I always have on my mind the thought that next year I must do something greater, something more wonderful.”

Houdini had to impose rigid discipline upon his mind in order to do what he was so good at. He had to use his brain to find patterns, to remember systems and techniques and tricks. He had to know which locks were easy to open, and where you could put in a false panel that no one would see. He had to be able to keep track of time under duress and make sure that he could keep himself from succumbing to the panic that is perfectly natural when you think you’re trapped.

The final part of this quote, the only part that can make it work, is the idea of a “key.” Where there is a key, there must also be a lock. In Houdini’s case, that lock may have been natural human fear of confinement. It may have been the ignorance of how escape artistry works. It may have been the more philosophical fear of failure. Or any number of other things that would have prevented him from doing what he loved to do. With the extensive training he underwent, his brain allowed him to defeat those locks and let his mind and imagination go free into the world.

So what does this mean for those of us who aren’t trapped inside milk cans filled with water? Well, in its most obvious form, the quote is a call for education. Get your brain in shape so that it can seek out patterns, remember important information, analyze data, and synthesize it into something new. Once your brain is on your side, there’s really no limit to – and no telling – where your mind and creative spirit may go.

Mind you, some doors are going to be harder to open than others…

More subtly, though, the quote suggests something that hearkens back to the previously-discussed Feynman quote: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Perhaps Houdini’s use of his brain was not limited to his tricks and illusions. Perhaps he turned his brain on himself as well, unlocking the doors within that otherwise would have held him back. By knowing himself for who he was – good and bad bits alike – Houdini would have been able to let his mind go anywhere it wanted, without fear of what it might bring back.

In the same way, we can train ourselves and discipline ourselves in such a way that we can give our minds freedom to explore and discover, safe in the knowledge that we have the tools, the skills, and the wherewithal to go with them. And if we should encounter another lock?

Just fashion another key.

Richard Feynman said…

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Physicists this cool come along once in a lifetime. If you’re lucky.

Feynman was an amazing guy. If you have some free time, go to YouTube and check out the interviews that he did with the BBC. Just watching him, you can see the deep love and admiration he had not just for the universe as we know it, but for science – the process by which the universe becomes understandable.

He was a physicist, a Nobel Prize winner, a bongo player, a safecracker, and a ladies’ man. He had a hand in the atom bomb and helped us understand some of the most fundamental forces in nature. And he did it with an energetic and electric personality that made him into one of the rock stars of science.

The quote comes in the middle of his commencement address to CalTech in 1974, later adapted into an essay called “Cargo Cult Science.” The title comes from the way unscientific things are treated like science – education, justice, advertising – and why they’re not. They might look like science, and people might believe they’re science, much in the way the cargo cults of the South Seas believed their bamboo airports would attract airplanes, but they’re not. They’re missing a fundamental element that keeps them from truly being scientific.

What they lack, he says, is scientific integrity. There is a level of absolute honesty that is required of science in order to make it work. When you undertake a study or an experiment, you must reveal all the results – good and bad, friendly or not. You can’t just put forth the data that supports your ideas or the results that make you look good. You must be absolutely honest.

In order to do that, however, you have to be honest with yourself first. The rest of the quote goes as follows:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

His message is that if science is ever going to work, it demands complete honesty from everyone involved, especially the scientists doing the research. If you’re building on someone else’s data, you must first try to reproduce that data yourself. If your experiment isn’t working, start working on figuring out why. And if you’re wrong, then you’re wrong. Take your hypothesis and either adjust it or discard it, but don’t keep hammering away at an idea you know is a dud. Psuedoscience remains such because it is dependent on not telling the whole truth, or on making sure no one knows about the parts of your ideas that don’t work.

This idea is not confined to science, of course. We all fool ourselves in myriad and interesting ways, and it’s terribly easy to do. We buy things we don’t need because we fool ourselves into thinking we do. We get into – and get out of – relationships because we fool ourselves into thinking that it’s something it’s not. We fool ourselves about our jobs, our leaders, our families – there’s no limit to the ways we can re-interpret reality to make it fit our preconceived notions of what it should be.

In life, we are all very bad scientists.

Soh-cratz really knew what he was talking about.

We don’t have to be, though. The idea of being honest with yourself is as old as antiquity – the maxim to “know thyself” is attributed all the way back to Socrates, if not further. Self-knowledge is considered one of the keys to being a fully realized human being, and part of that self-knowledge is figuring out where you’ve lied to yourself.

It takes a certain mindfulness and humility to know when you’re being dishonest, and a readiness to accept the fact that you’re not necessarily the great person you think you are. But once you can start dealing with yourself honestly, it becomes a lot easier to be honest with other people.

If you’re into that kind of thing, anyway.

Holbrook Jackson said…

“Fear of corrupting the mind of the younger generation is the loftiest form of cowardice.”

He had nothing to say on the effect of his mustache on the younger generation…

This is a quote that is near to my heart for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is because I am a teacher. I’m in contact with The Young all the time, and there is a certain division in my heart when it comes to the idea of “corrupting” them.

Every year, our school hosts the Phoenix Cup Junior High School Speech contest, in which young teens from around the country make speeches in English about the state of the world and their hopes for the future. And each year I’m stunned by their optimism and hope, their belief that we can all act reasonably and make the world a better place.

I’m a cynic, you see, and a pretty irredeemable one at that. But in order to be a cynic, one must have first been an idealist at some point, and seeing them wear their hopes so openly and bravely makes me recall feelings that had long since been packaged up and stored in the metaphorical closet of my heart.

I feel bad because I know that it will only be a few short years before their hope and idealism are put to the test, and those hopeful idealists are stuffed into the dull, jaded suits of adulthood.

And so, I don’t want to corrupt them. I don’t want to tell them about the things that I know are true, the trials that I know they will face, and the lies that I know they must one day see through. I fear that I will be the one who mark the end of their idealism, and I don’t want that on my conscience. I don’t want to be a corrupting influence.

That, however, is the cowardice that Jackson is talking about, or at least one variety of it. The impulse to shield and cosset my students is an impulse born of fear and trepidation – and not even for them, really. It is a fear that I will not be remembered for trying to help, but rather that I was the one who took their illusions away. It’s a self-indulgent fear, which is pretty much what cowardice is all about.

It also rests on a pretty adult-centered assumption: that The Young neither want to understand nor are capable of understanding these things, and that upon hearing them will crumble like delicate spun glass under a machine-gun barrage. This is pretty far from the truth.  When adults lie, they know. They might not know what we’re lying about, but they know full well that we’re lying to them in one way or another and the truth – even an unpleasant truth – is preferable to a well-intentioned lie.

Try as I might, I couldn’t find the context for this quote. Searching on Google just brings up the quote itself, which is commonly brought up in discussions of censorship, a topic that Jackson was most likely expounding upon. The quote suits that topic just as well as the admittedly self-indulgent context I created, I think. Whenever someone suggests censoring a book or a movie or a video game, chances are that they’re doing it “For the children.” They say that kids shouldn’t be exposed to the violent perversion of the adult world, lest their innocence be lost in a hail of bullets and/or naked grunting.

That said, this is still pretty funny.

And again, there’s something to that. There is a great temptation to let children live in their own fantasy world for as long as possible, where no one dies or despairs. Let the kids live in happy ignorance for as long as they can, right?

Maybe. I don’t have children, so I’m not as qualified to make a decision as someone who’s actually responsible for bringing a decent human being into the world. I like to believe I wouldn’t lie to them, at least not very often. I like to believe that while I would hold their innocence sacred, there would be times when it had to be put aside in order to prepare them for a world that does not value innocence. It would hurt, I’m sure, but sooner or later The Young have to be shown the world for what it is. And that requires courage from those of us who have gone before.