Danish Filmmaker Spends Year in Wisconsin Documenting Contemplative Neuroscience Research with Children and Vets in “Free the Mind”
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
For the past year, Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo has been trailing neuroscientist Richard Davidson at his lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Best known for studying the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks, Davidson’s research has shown that meditation can literally change the brain.
He’s the featured guest in our show titled "Investigating Healthy Minds." While producing it, we were looking for sound that would illustrate some of his point and discovered Ambo’s yet-to-be released documentary, Free the Mind, contained a few audio clips that would help bring Dr. Davidson’s work to life.
In 2010, Ambo set out with her family from Denmark to document Davidson’s newest research with pre-school children and war veterans. We emailed her to learn more about her film, and her motivations for making it.
I met Richard Davidson for the first time in 2009 when he was in Massachusetts for a conference on mindfulness. I was there to look for a scientist who would be a good main character for my film, so I sat through four days of talks given by different experts in the field, and I immediately knew that Richie would make a great character when I saw him on stage. He is a very playful and curious scientist, and it’s easy to tell that he is very visionary.
What inspired you to make a film about him? How and why is Richard Davidson’s work personally meaningful to you?
The reason why I wanted to make a film on Richie’s work is that he is personally invested in his research. He is a meditator himself, which to me makes him interesting as a researcher on a very deep level.
Richie knows that meditation works for him, but he really wants to know how and why it works. He has his own bodily experience with meditation, which I believe gives him the tools to ask the relevant questions on a scientific level. To me it’s also crucial that Richie works with rigorous scientific methods and that he also publishes studies that show that meditation does not work for everyone. This makes him reliable and trustworthy to me.
Another good trait in Richie is that he is not afraid to ask some of the questions that may not be popular in meditation research like: How many of the people who take a mindfulness class actually stick to the training one year or 10 years later?
Do you have a meditation practice? If so, what kind of practice do you do? How has meditation shaped your own life (and brain)?
About six years ago I suddenly started to have panic attacks and it was very scary and disturbing. I went to my doctor and she wanted to medicate me, but I had a strong feeling that medication was not the right treatment for me. I felt that I had to find a way to work my way through this crisis with all my senses open, not closed.
By coincidence I heard about mindfulness meditation and I took an eight-week course in Copenhagen. It helped me a lot to just accept things as they were and not try to shove down all the uncomfortable emotions. But I also felt very strongly that something was physically changing in my brain as I practiced. I got very curious about what was actually happening to me on a scientific level, so I decided to look into this through my work as a filmmaker.
I still meditate every day. I practice different kinds of meditation -– lovingkindness, open awareness, body scan, and sound meditations. It’s funny because in my work as a documentary filmmaker I often struggle with accepting reality as it is; I can’t control what happens when I shoot and this is both the best and worst about working with reality. But the way I see it, meditation is very much about being in the present moment and experiencing it fully without wanting to change it -– and this is really helpful to remember in my job. In many ways my meditation practice helps me to stay open towards any changes that may occur during shooting and just go with whatever happens.
You traveled inside this emerging world of contemplative neuroscience during the filming process. How did your understanding of contemplative neuroscience deepen or change?
In the beginning of my research process, it was very important to me that the meditation form being studied was mindfulness, so I was a bit thrown off when I found out that one of the experiments that I was following for the film had changed into being about a specific breathing technique and yoga, which was not Buddhist based.
This was an experiment with vets who suffer from PTSD and they go through a seven-day workshop. I was worried that just sitting down breathing would be too subtle to make interesting cinematic scenes with the vets, but it turned out that the breathing activated all kinds of emotions that came out during the workshop. This made the study very suitable for the documentary film, and I realized that the contemplative practices all stand on a pretty similar ground so they produce some of the same effects too. It’s not so important whether it’s Buddhist or not.
Tell us a little bit about the filming process. How long did you document Richard Davidson and his research? What aspects of his research did you look at? What’s the story you’re trying to tell?
I went to Madison three times to prepare for the shooting and make sure that we were all on the same page and then I brought my husband and two kids for six weeks in the fall of 2010 where I did almost all of the scenes for the film. I was in India briefly with Richie to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama and then back again in Madison in the spring of 2011 to do the very last scenes for the film.
I had decided to make a film that would appeal to a wide audience because I think it’s important for everyone to know about these alternative ways to work with our health. I think that a lot of people get turned off if they feel that this film is too academic for them so I chose to make it a case-based story where we follow three characters that go through studies set in Richie’s lab.
Two of them are vets and one is a five-year-old child. What I really like about the studies that these two extremely different groups go through is that they are very similar; they all learn to concentrate and become more aware of themselves and their surroundings. So the story that I would like to tell is that essentially all human beings are alike even though we seem very different on the surface. We are all just trying to achieve happiness. The good news is that we can work intentionally towards that goal because our brains are plastic and we have the potential to change all through life.
What did you see on the ground while filming that made a lasting impression on you? Is there a particular story or experience that stands out?
I really like some of the more poetic moments in the film. One of the vets sits in his own thoughts halfway through the workshop and then he says, “I’ve just come to the realization that I haven’t really lived since I’ve been back. I’ve just been kind of here.” This guy has stopped making plans for his life, but at the end of the workshop he starts to talk about running a marathon!
Another moving moment is when a vet says that he used to be a kid who was smiling all the time for no reason and now he’s grown cynical and closed off and he never smiles. At the end of the workshop, he has a smile on his face during a meditation.
The little kid in the film, Will, also has a wonderful scene in the film when during class the kids are talking about how to make a plant grow. The other kids say “sun, soil, and water” but Will says “love” in a clear voice “because if you don’t love it, it won’t grow!” These are all little steps that the characters take on their journey that I feel incredibly privileged to be witnessing through my camera.
Free the Mind is slated for release in the spring of 2012.