"We are headed for a new Renaissance," Phie Ambo says,"a new age where everything is turned upside down. On all levels, discoveries are being made that are not what we thought they would be. A lot of fundamental questions are being asked about who we are as humans."
Such questions are grist for this inquiring documentary filmmaker's mill. Ambo's new film, "Free the Mind", is the second in a trilogy exploring the fascinating intersection where science meets reality and scientists have to leave things open.
"It gives me energy when I realise that everything is wide open again," Ambo says, with a broad smile.
Changing the brain
"Mechanical Love", the first film in Ambo's trilogy about humankind, asked, What is an emotion? Selected for competition at IDFA, the film explores our relationship to robots, including lonely seniors forming emotional attachments to robotic baby seals.
The central question in "Free the Mind" is, What is a thought? Ambo tracks the world's leading neuroscientist, Richard Davidson, on his mission to improve the quality of life for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and children with learning disabilities by having them do yoga, meditation and breathing exercises. Studying Tibetan monks, Dr. Davidson has shown that meditation can literally change the brain, giving people an active hand in shaping their personality.
"Free the Mind" documents a week-long class for veterans and a class for kindergarteners conducted by Davidson. In most cases, it is shown, the exercises help the participants to make positive changes: the veterans learn to live with their traumatising experiences, while a small boy with ADHD conquers his fear of elevators.
From a personal place
"Free the Mind" comes from a very personal place for the 38-year-old director who started managing her own anxiety by practicing meditation.
"Panic attacks are really awful," she says."You think you're going crazy, and you totally lose grip on reality. I could tell it wasn't about bad memories from my childhood or anything that could be talked away. It was a physical sensation that something in my brain wasn't working."
Ambo's doctor offered to put her on anti-anxiety medication, but that didn't feel right to her and instead she started looking for another way to manage her anxiety. Stumbling on the concept of meditation-based mindfulness, she decided to take an MBSR class. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction was developed in the US by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer of mindfulness research.
"It's done in groups," Ambo says."So there we were, 16 people with all these crazy problems – social phobias, anxiety and depression, every imaginable psychological defect we modern people pick up.
"I could feel very quickly that something was happening to me. Just getting my body to relax worked pretty well. But I could also feel that there was something happening in my brain as I meditated."
Ambo began to research meditation, breathing exercises and the relationship between the body and the mind more generally with the aim of exploring it in a film.
"Is it autosuggestion? Is it because I believe in it? Is it because I have been told it works? I had to explore what happens on a scientific level and look at why this has an effect and, as such, how it can be an alternative to medicine."
No miracle cure
Ambo first met Dr. Davidson in 2009 at a mindfulness conference in Massachusetts when she was looking for a scientist for her film. It was important for her to have a scientific framework around the subject, blocking any whiff of the religious or new agey that would make it too easy for critics to dismiss and attack.
"I decided he was the one. He was just right for my film." Davidson is inquisitive and visionary, she says,"and he has the right attitude, 'Mindfulness is not a miracle cure. It might just as well be that it doesn't work, but we really know very little about it, so let's study it.'"
"Davidson has been practicing meditation himself for years, while working scientifically to try and figure out how and why meditation physically affects him and other people. He would be the first to admit that we know very little about how the brain, the most complex organism in the world, works," Ambo says.
While "Free the Mind" presents several success stories, Ambo is not looking to close the book on meditation and its effects.
"Actually, it's only 10 years ago that the brain was believed to be static from the age of seven. Everything is in motion. Living a human life is chaotic and you have to plunge into the maelstrom, keep a cool head and hope you'll get back to the surface again. As soon as you start thinking, ‘That's how it is!' you drown in your own preconceived opinions about everything."
The same goes for Ambo's work as a documentary filmmaker.
"There should always be questions in the material. That's why I go there. That's why I don't do fiction. I don't have to know how it ends," she says.
This story originally appeared in the May issue of the Danish Film Institute's festival magazine, FILM#75 .