Free the Mind: Film Review
Phie Ambo's documentary chronicles a neuroscientist's use of meditation and mindfulness techniques to help troubled individuals
Viewers may well find themselves entering a meditative state while watching Phie Ambo’s documentary chronicling the efforts of a leading neuroscientist to use meditation and mindfulness techniques to rewire the brains of people suffering from anxiety and stress. Following the University of Wisconsin’s Professor Richard J. Davidson as he applies his techniques to war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and young children from ADD, among other things, Free the Mind doesn’t quite make its case in sufficiently persuasive fashion. But it does provide plenty of food for thought in its advocacy of using methods other than endless pharmaceuticals to cure crippling mental disorders.
Richardson, who conducts his studies at the aptly named Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, describes himself as a formerly “closeted meditator” who only came out after meeting the Dalai Lama in 1992. Encouraged by the spiritual leader to apply the same methods he used to study depression and anxiety to the study of compassion and kindness, he proceeded to do just that via a process he calls “contemplative neuroscience.”
The filmmaker, who spent a year with the scientist as he conducted his experiments, tracks their effects on two veterans severely traumatized by their wartime experiences. One is a former military interrogator haunted by the barbaric methods he employed: “I don’t know how many times I made someone soil himself,” he says forlornly, adding that he needs to take sleeping pills every night just to get some rest.
Another subject is three-year-old foster child Will, who succumbs to horrific fear at the very thought of entering an elevator and who is prone to fits of slapping his own face uncontrollably.
Augmenting the scenes depicting various experiments and treatments are related tidbits of information, such as the fact that more soldiers have committed suicide after returning home than were killed in combat and that studies have shown that emotional, rather than cognitive, intelligence is a far better predictor of success. Animated interludes vividly depict the effects on the brain of the techniques being employed.
But while the individual case studies are certainly compelling, the film is ultimately too diffuse to prove its claims with sufficient rigor. While there’s no denying the laudableness of using such tools as “compassion meditation” to increase feelings of empathy, the information imparted here is too vague to be fully convincing.
Opens May 3 (International Film Circuit)
Production: Danish Documentary
Director/screenwriter/director of photography: Phie Ambo
Producer: Sigrid Dyekjaer
Editor: Marion Tuor
Composer: Johann Johannsson
Not rated, 80 min.
Sundance: On the Scene