Neuroscientists have formed a pretty clear picture of what a healthy brain looks like — but what, if anything, can their methods tell us about a “healthy mind”? Is it even possible to quantify or measure something as seemingly ineffable (and yet so very much in demand) as contentment? Phie Ambo’s remarkable documentary takes its cue from those questions, which have set the parameters for University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher and Transcendental Meditation advocate Richard Davidson’s life’s work. The film shifts deftly between the enthusiastic psychologist/neuroscientist’s presentation of his brain imaging research (which does indeed suggest that meditation can produce physiological results) and carefully observed sequences that explore the firsthand experiences of the people in his care.
One of the most interesting aspects of Free The Mind is the way it brings together two segments of the population whose struggles aren’t typically thought of as linked: children with ADHD and other behavioural difficulties and soldiers dealing with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Davidson’s Center For Investigating Healthy Minds is dedicated to helping these groups to cope with and possibly even to overcome the worst effects of their conditions – without the use of medication. The preliminary results are encouraging, if the film’s three main test cases/interview subjects (a recently adopted boy named Will and a pair of Iraq war vets, one of whom specialized in brutal interrogation procedures) are at all representative. Ambo’s well-balanced account also includes extensive footage detailing the experiences of another distressed soldier (Brian) who does not respond nearly as positively to the prescribed course of treatment. In time, this research could potentially have vast repercussions for an increasingly atomized society crippled by neoconservative measures that cannot help but produce an exponential rise in anxieties of every description and level of intensity.
Davidson’s “loving-kindness” (or Mettā) approach to meditation may not seem “political” on the surface, but the method, as presented by the film, offers a subtle critique of the “self-help” meditation narrative that has become so familiar to North Americans – a critique which gestures toward the possibility of therapeutic initiatives that go well beyond the individual level. Instead of stressing meditation’s role in helping to increase “mental focus” or “personal effectiveness”, Davidson and his colleagues emphasize the importance of freeing the mind to leap beyond its own confines, so that it can properly attend to the needs and the unique attributes of others. This seemingly innocuous, but immensely important, distinction offers a powerful tool for dismantling the discourse of the “sovereign individual” which threatens to make a nasty, brutish and tedious hash of our lives. The notion that “contentment” derives primarily from the confidence that we are properly equipped to understand and truly communicate with other human beings, and thereby to work together with them to foster a climate of genuine good will, probably should not come as a surprise. But in a culture which clings so desperately to the mantra that “happiness comes from within”, it arrives as a revolutionary breath of fresh air; one that could perhaps, in time, help to rewire society itself.
Free The Mind: Can You Rewire The Brain Just By Taking A Breath? makes its North American premiere at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on May 2 (6:30pm). It will also show at the ROM Theatre on May 3 (6 pm) and at the Isabel Balder Theatre on May 4 (11 am).
Consult the complete Hot Docs Festival schedule here.