One veteran haunted by the memory of men he couldn’t save, another by the men he has tortured. A child shuttled between five foster families in his first 22 months, now prone to slap himself in the face.
Somehow their stories add up to a deeply hopeful new documentary, Free the Mind.
The film tracks two very vulnerable and very different groups: veterans enrolled in a class to help them deal with their painful memories of war, and a class of preschoolers, some of whom are suffering from psychological or developmental disorders.
It zeroes in on two of the veterans, Rich and Steve. Neither has been able to re-adjust to civilian life after returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan; both show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): intense mood swings, trouble sleeping, flashbacks to some of the horrors they witnessed—or caused—during their service. Rich’s post-war volatility cost him his marriage; Steve’s invasive memories distract him from his wife and children, and he finds himself quickly balling his hands into fists when he gets angry, a habit he never had before.
Their stories are intercut with that of Will, a preschooler diagnosed with ADHD who was put into foster care when he was five days old and spent much of his first two years transferred from home to home. After once being trapped alone in an elevator, he breaks into tears at the mention of riding one. Will is lively and endearing, but we see him hurt his classmates and frequently hit himself.
Hovering over the film is neuroscientist (and Greater Good editorial board member) Richard Davidson and his team at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It is at the CIHM that Rich, Steve, and roughly 20 fellow veterans attend their class, where they learn breathing exercises, yoga, and other techniques intended to alleviate their PTSD symptoms, while Davidson and his colleagues study their progress. The CIHM’s education specialist, Laura Pinger, helps implement a program at Will’s preschool that uses some of those same techniques, coupled with efforts to help the children better identify and express their emotions and recognize how their actions affect the emotions of others.
As Davidson explains in an interview, the goal of all this is to determine whether it’s possible to train people—adults and kids alike—in skills that can help them gain better control over their thoughts, emotions, and reactions to stressful events, in the process perhaps changing the very wiring of their brains—what’s known as “neuroplasticity.”
Those familiar with the science documenting neuroplasticity, much of it pioneered by Davidson, won’t be surprised by the researchers’ ultimate results in Free the Mind. But the film is valuable for bringing this research to life by showing what’s at stake for its subjects. It conveys the agony of a life ruled by fear and anxiety: When the soldiers attempt an early meditation exercise, they report being overwhelmed by thoughts of maimed comrades and severed heads. Their minds are their enemies.
Similarly, watching Will in action, quick to outbursts and to hurting others, we can’t help but fear that he has been irreparably damaged by his early life experiences.
The key question behind all these stories is the question driving Davidson’s research: Is there hope for people like Rich, Steve, Will, and anyone who has ever suffered and felt overwhelmed by pain—in other words, all of us?
The filmmaker, Phie Ambo, who is Danish, often cross-cuts between the veterans and the children, sometimes when they’re in the midst of the same exercise. The cuts could feel forced or obvious, but here they don’t. Instead, they serve to underscore the characters’ common fragility and the universal human challenges to mental well-being. The juxtapositions highlight the need not only to address trauma but to guard against it taking root in the first place.
The need is especially profound given recent figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs showing that a U.S. veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes. Fueling this tragedy is the intense stigma surrounding PTSD among vets, preventing them from getting the psychological help they need.
This makes the access Ambo got to Steve and Rich all the more impressive. Both men open up to the camera about their combat experience and romantic troubles, and they allow Ambo’s camera to enter the intimate space of their burgeoning meditation practices.
Ambo heightens the emotional connection we feel to her subjects by taking a fly-on-the-wall approach to her subjects—we never hear her voice or any narration, outside from some voice-overs from Davidson, and there are just a handfull of titles used over the course of the film.
The trade-off with this approach is that the viewer is sometimes left in the dark about some key details. It’s never entirely clear what the curriculum is for the preschool or veterans program, and the precise goals of the research are not made very explicit—for instance, we watch EKG readings of the veterans’ brains, but we’re not sure what the researchers are looking for. We do see enough of the program and research to make some reasonable inferences about their methodology, but viewers will understand more if they have some prior knowledge of mindfulness meditation, social-emotional learning programs, or research on either.
Nonetheless, in the closing credits, titles on screen do tell us that both of the soldiers saw some of their PTSD symptoms, like sleeplessness, decline dramatically. The text confirms what the rest of the film has already powerfully illustrated: that through proper training, we can transform our minds, reduce suffering, and perhaps even re-wire ourselves for a happier life.
Free the Mind is screening tonight, May 17, for free at Stanford University, hosted by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) and co-sponsored by the GGSC. CCARE’s, associate director, Emma Seppala, is featured prominently in the film from when she was a researcher at CIHM. If you want to try to bring the film to a theater near you, you can do so through Tugg.com.