The benefits of meditation may seem obvious to many. But neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson, who describes himself as a “closet meditator,” faced a skeptical scientific community that needed empirical proof to be convinced that controlled breathing, mindfulness, and other techniques really can affect the brain enough to relieve a number of physical and psychological conditions.
Phie Ambo’s easy-to-digest documentary “Free the Mind” follows Dr. Davidson in his Center for Investigating Healthy Minds in Madison, Wisc. He has been meditating for 30 years and explains that it was a 1992 meeting with the Dalai Lama that set him on a quest into how practices that develop compassion and kindness might be used to combat depression and anxiety.
Davidson’s compilation of seemingly immeasurable data is interesting, as is the doctor himself. But the film wisely sticks to three of Davidson’s subjects: Rich and Steve are young Afghanistan war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; and Will is a charming five-year-old with ADHD.
The two vets are in an experimental program at Davidson’s center where, with other vets, they practice breathing exercises, yoga, and contemplation in an effort to reduce anxiety, anger and sleeplessness. Steve has been prescribed the popular medication Ambien; other vets report turning to marijuana, alcohol or other drugs to ease their symptoms, which include flashbacks to horrific events they endured in combat.
As Davidson and his associate, Dr. Emma Seppala, measure responses and track progress, the film offers a more intimate look at Steve, who is helping to raise his two small children while coping with PTSD, and Rich, whose marriage ended when he returned home with his PTSD. The science is interesting, but the personal stories are what make us root for these guys to overcome their demons.
At the other end of the spectrum is Will, bounced around in foster care since birth, who suffers from anxiety including a fear of riding in elevators. His adoptive parents recount their decision to keep Will off Ritalin, which a doctor wanted to prescribe when Will was three years old. We see Will in the classroom as Laura Pinger, a specialist in mindfulness, guides the children in breathing and yoga practices to settle them and quell outbursts of anger. A nice cinematic touch are the shots of Will’s eye pressed to the swirling particles in a snow globe, an object Pinger uses to help him calm his mind and re-focus his energy.
The film itself is a calming experience, aided by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score (he also composed the soundtrack to the feature “Prisoners”). Though perhaps more suited to PBS or classrooms than to movie screens, the documentary is engrossing and just may encourage more people to look less to pharmacology for answers and more within.
Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.