“Free the Mind”: Life-changing research in our own backyard


“Free the Mind” opens Wednesday at Sundance Cinemas in Madison. Not rated, 1:31, three stars out of four. There will be post-show Q&As featuring the filmmaker, several of the film’s subjects, and other experts after the 7 p.m. shows on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

I know I shouldn’t judge a movie by its title, but hearing about a documentary called “Free the Mind” made me assume this would be one of those hippy-dippy films preaching about the mystical powers of positive thinking, like “What the Bleep Do We Know?” or “I Am.”

How refreshing it is that Danish documentary filmmaker Phie Ambo’s film, largely made in Madison, is so grounded and even utilitarian in its approach to the human brain. There’s some trippy visual effects intended to illustrate the activity of the brain, to be sure. But most of the film looks at the very practical applications of the meditation research done by Dr. Richard Davidson at the UW’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.

Davidson’s groundbreaking research (my interview with him this week is here) indicates that, just as trauma and other external experiences can shape the way we think, there are positive influences such as meditation that can rewire our brains in a more healthy direction. Ambo looks at two groups the Center is working with to put these theories into practice.

The first is preschoolers, especially one little boy who suffers from rage and fear issues, possibly a result of a life spent in foster care. The other are Iraq War vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. One, Rich Low, is haunted by the faces of the fellow soldiers who he couldn’t save while at war.

Another, Stephen Lee, is a former military intelligence officer who vividly describes the harsh interrogation tactics he used on people. “In order to do my job, I had to become a horrible person,” Lee said. “And I was good at it.” Ambo’s film gets about as close as I’ve ever seen to capturing the torment of PTSD sufferers; Low and Lee allow her intimate access into their daily lives.

The techniques that researchers use aren’t any sort of hocus-pocus, just a mix of meditation, breathing exercises and other methods. One thing I learned from the film is that there are hundreds of different kinds of meditations, and the trick is matching the right meditation with the individual. By the end of the sessions, the veterans’ anxiety levels have dropped and they’re sleeping much better.

There are some clunky stylistic touches in “Free the Mind,” such as an overbearing score that seems needlessly intrusive at times; when Davidson appears on Michael Feldman’s “Whad’Ya Know?” the music seems ominous for some reason. (Come on, it can’t be that bad.) But this is overall a compassionate and curious film about the real-world implications of some fascinating research happening right in our backyard, helping our own neighbors.