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Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013

Free the Mind

Contemplating consciousness at Milwaukee Film Festival

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Psychiatry has often become a retail arm of the pharmaceutical industry, with psychology as the industry’s PR department. But there are discontents. Aside from their side effects, psychotropic drugs tend to redress symptoms without addressing causes. And the limitations of the pharmaceutical-psychiatric paradigm play out in damaged lives and untreated illness. According to one report, 50% of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder fail to respond to the “standard treatment,” which relies heavily on medication.

Neuroscience is finding other ways, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison is on the leading edge. Wisconsin’s “contemplative neuroscience” program under Richard J. Davidson (one of Time magazine’s “most influential people”) is the subject of Danish director Phie Ambo’s documentary, Free the Mind. The Madison program has earned attention for its studies of Buddhist monks, recording unusual activity in their brains on EEGs during deep meditation. Free the Mind shows Tibetan monks and the Dalai Lama in glimpses, but focuses on the university’s Research Preschool Laboratory, where a child is terrified of elevators, and the University Meditation Room, with a pair of veterans haunted by memories of what they saw and did. In all three cases, simple meditation exercises, focused on breathing and coupled with yoga stretches, has helped patients come to grips with the roots of their anxiety and free them both from traumatic memories and dependence on medication.

Free the Mind links the stories of the terrified child, whose fears stem from the uncertainty of foster homes, with the former Army interrogator, whose treatment of prisoners violated his conscience, and the other soldier, forced to pick through the debris of human bodies after an IED exploded. The movie cleverly supplies some of its background information by documenting sessions at the Preschool, as toddlers sit cross-legged in a semi circle for a simple description of how the brain works, and from Davidson’s appearance on Michael Feldman’s “Whad’Ya Know?”

“We have no idea how consciousness arises from the brain,” Davidson readily admits. Yet his research shows that the brain is not an organ that plateaus upon reaching maturity and gradually deteriorates with age, but is subject to continual change. The good news is that we can determine many of those changes.

Free the Mind will be screened as part of the Milwaukee Film Festival at 7 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 30, and at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 8, at the Oriental Theatre; and 4:15 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 3 at Fox Bay Cinema Grill.