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Originally published Thursday, July 25, 2013 at 3:05 PM

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‘Free the Mind’: Finding hope through meditation

A movie review of “Free the Mind,” a documentary that asks a simple question (“Can you rewire the brain just by taking a breath?”) and proceeds to answer it with fascinating revelations from the cutting edge of neuroscience.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie Review 3 stars

‘Free the Mind,’ a documentary directed by Phie Ambo. 80 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

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Any conscientious film critic will tell you that star ratings should be ignored in favor of reading the actual review. That’s especially true with films like “Free the Mind,” a Danish/Finnish documentary filmed in English in the U.S.

As a documentary, it’s merely average, lacking the editorial and journalistic rigor of, say, a powerful “Nova” special on PBS. But if you focus on its fascinating subject matter and the dramatic revelations presented here with irrefutable impact, “Free the Mind” qualifies as a pioneering inquiry at the outermost boundaries of neuroscience.

Although Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo relies on not-very-special-effects to illustrate different modes of brain function, her instincts for real-life drama are considerably sharper. She asks a deceptively simple question (“Can you rewire the brain just by taking a breath?”), then proceeds to answer it through the work of Dr. Richard Davidson, a world-renowned neuroscientist who was listed among Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2007.

A “closet meditator” until he met the Dalai Lama in 1992, Davidson took the Buddhist holy leader’s advice to apply the same rigorous methods he used to study anxiety and depression to the study of kindness and compassion. In “Free the Mind,” Davidson’s pioneering work is applied to three people with remarkably positive results: two traumatized soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a 5-year-old boy suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and terrorized by common events like riding in an elevator.

All three seem poised for potentially suicidal lives of anger, frustration and violence. While engaged in breathing, visualization and meditation exercises (which, as we see, don’t always work for everyone), their ability to recognize and defuse feelings of fear, anxiety and anger is powerfully reinforced — without, it must be noted, the use of prescription medications.

They learn by doing, and after we’ve seen the boy exhibit behaviors that would cause any parent to wail in despair, “Free the Mind” ends with a breakthrough that elicits tears of joy and hopefulness. In this way, the film presents thoughtful, compassionate teachers as heroes while proving, yet again, that we’ve only just begun to unravel the mysteries of the human brain.

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