May 2, 2013 marks the premiere of Free the Mind, a documentary about the use of mindfulness and meditation to treat psychological difficulties, directed by Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo in collaboration with Dr. Richard Davidson, a psychology professor from the University of Wisconsin. The film will be premiered in Toronto at the international documentary film festival Hot Docs.
Free the Mind follows the research of Dr. Davidson in two distinctive settings. First, it explores how mindfulness helps children deal with negative emotions, focusing on one child named Will who has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Second, it documents Dr. Davidson and his assistants’ research into the use of meditation to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among war veterans. One goal of this video is to propose mindfulness and meditation as a viable alternative to synthetic medications for the effective treatment of psychological problems.
Documentary filmmaker Phie Ambo became interested in the topic of mindfulness and meditation because of her own personal experiences with the practice, which helped her deal with anxiety. The mindfulness and meditation exercises the children in Free the Mind go through, with the help of a meditation teacher, are similar to those that Ambo went through to treat her own anxiety. They focus on the physical, concentrating on breath, sound and visual representations. In one example, Will, who is suffering from ADHD and has anxiety about elevators, is given a toy snow globe to shake. He points to his chest at the physical location where the upset occurs from his anxiety. He’s told to shake the snow globe and that the sparkles swirling around represent his emotions swirling around and around when he gets upset. She wants Will to let the flakes relax, and then follow their example by letting himself relax as well. It’s remarkable how this works to help Will reduce his anger and anxiety; by shaking the snow globe and letting the pieces swirl up and then relax, Will is able to find the courage to ride an elevator for the first time. This practice reveals that at least in some situations, the connection between the mind and the physical body is definitely strong.
In another example, veterans being treated for PTSD use kriya yoga to relax, let go of negative thoughts and develop the ability to live in the present moment instead of ruminating on their past experiences during the war. The exercises they do are basically more complex versions of what the children do, with the goal being the same. After a week of doing exercises that promote mindfulness and meditation, many of the veterans had an easier time sleeping and experienced less traumatic thoughts about the past horrors of war. Dr. Davidson’s research assistants used brain scanning technology to monitor changes in the brains of the subjects, though it has not yet been proven that any brain changes occurred as a result of meditation. The veterans also had to complete a fill-in-the-blank/finish-the-sentence questionnaire. Before participating in the exercises, veterans often used violence-related words with negative connotations to fill in the blanks, while after participating in the exercises they generally used less violence-related words and more words with positive connotations.
Ambo chose to work with Dr. Davidson because he employed the latest scanning technologies to tap into his subjects’ brains during his experiments instead of relying on the subjects’ self-reports, which can often be inaccurate. Ambo observed from her own work filming documentaries that the subjects of her documentaries would often verbally profess to believe one thing while their actions expressed a contrary belief.
In light of recent backlashes against the heavy use of medication for psychological disorders, particularly for ADHD in children, this film is sure to spark interesting conversation and debate. It can prove helpful to parents or those involved in childcare, especially for those dealing with children diagnosed with ADHD on a daily basis.
Watch the trailer: