If you were hoping to catch Free the Mind at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York last week, you may have been disappointed. Tickets to the premiere of Danish filmmaker Phie (pronounced Fee) Ambo’s documentary about how the mind can change the brain sold out in six hours flat. Which leads us to wonder: Were the ticket purchasers displaying poor self-control (acting on impulse) or excellent executive function (using foresight and planning ahead)? It’s the sort of question someone in the audience might have put to neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson, the film’s intellectual center of gravity, who shared the stage with Ambo on opening night.
Davidson runs the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his research subjects are the focus of the film. There’s Will, a five-year-old with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder struggling to overcome his fear of elevators through mindful awareness training. Then there’s Steve, a combat veteran and ex-interrogator enrolled in a pilot study to assess the effects of sudarshan kriya, a form of controlled yogic breathing, on the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. We spoke to Phie Ambo about the perils of making a movie in which she couldn’t anticipate the ending, the moral complexities of the project, and why the camera wasn’t rolling during the most intense moment of the veterans’ retreat.
On the face of it, neuroscience seems a peculiar subject for the large screen. What led you to believe otherwise?
Curiosity. Having taken a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class for panic attacks in Copenhagen, I knew the technique worked and I wanted to know how it worked and why.
Apart from Richard Davidson, were there other candidates you considered working with?
I spoke to a number of researchers, actually, including Amishi Jha and Elizabeth Stanley, who have equipped soldiers with mindfulness skills before their deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, then studied the outcome. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that work, and, frankly, I’m still not sure.
From an ethical standpoint?
Right. After all, these practices are based on nonviolent principles, so it seemed to me a rather complex matter.
By the end of the sudarshan criya workshop, Steve, the ex-interrogator, is almost functioning again. One could argue that if a simple breathing technique can make his emotions—guilt, shame, and remorse—”disappear”—
We could create the perfect killing machine? I don’t think so! The guilt and pain that haunt those men will never entirely go away, but it might not be a constant, either. During the workshop, they caught a glimpse of the love also present in themselves, which would make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to hurt another human being.
The breathwork scene was pretty intense.
Sudarshan criya can be scary. That’s why I didn’t even film the so-called long kriya: it’s meant to be practiced under the guidance of a teacher, never alone. And it’s not for people with certain psychiatric conditions. But for ex-soldiers who were traumatized and are still living in a nightmare, it would have been a greater risk not to have tried it.
Were the researchers concerned that the men might play to the camera and report better results than they experienced?
It was a concern, yes, but not a big one, since the study didn’t solely rely on the participant’s reports; there were plenty of objective measures as well. And we made sure the men didn’t feel they couldn’t attend the workshop without appearing in the film.
Let’s talk about the boy. What appealed to you about Will’s predicament?
The simplicity of the storyline. You’ve got this kid who has a problem with elevators. Is he going to get in that elevator or isn’t he?
What kind of a film would you have made if the subjects hadn’t been helped by the treatments?
Although I’ve often asked myself that question, I had to grapple with the opposite: the study results were almost too good to be true. One film editor even thought I was tying up all the narrative threads into too neat a package. She said, “Maybe you shouldn’t show Will getting in the elevator. You know, leave a few ragged ends.” But that was what I witnessed, so the viewer should see it, too.
For Free the Mind screening dates and additional information about the film, click here.
To watch a video of Waisman Lab researcher Emma Seppala discussing the remarkable effects of sudarshan kriya yoga on the PTSD-afflicted veterans featured in Free the Mind, click here.