Terry Waite and what his time in captivity taught him about the resilience of the human brain

Waite with the Queen at the Harrogate Gala Show in 1985. (YPN).
Waite with the Queen at the Harrogate Gala Show in 1985. (YPN).
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Humanitarian campaigner Terry Waite is in Leeds next week to take part in a public talk about the power of the brain and how it copes under stress. Chris Bond talked to him.

Terry Waite knows better than most what it’s like to endure extreme adversity. It’s just over 25 years since he emerged from captivity emaciated, bewildered and dazed by the glare of the world’s flashbulbs. As the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy, he had been sent to Beirut to negotiate the release of Western hostages in 1987.

Terry Waite is visiting Leeds next week to discuss the brains resilience under stress. (JPress).

Terry Waite is visiting Leeds next week to discuss the brains resilience under stress. (JPress).

Waite had enjoyed successes elsewhere, including Iran and Libya, but on this occasion the father of four was captured by Hezbollah militia and kept shackled and blindfolded in solitary confinement for nearly five years, during which time he suffered vicious beatings on the soles of his feet and endured a mock execution.

His final months of captivity were spent caged with hostages he had been trying to release – including John McCarthy and Brian Keenan from the UK and the American Terry Anderson.

In the years since his release he’s become an author and continued his humanitarian work. Next week he will join Richard Morris, professor of Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, and Professor Trevor Jones, a former director of The Wellcome Foundation, to talk about research that is shedding new light on our brain’s ability to cope under extreme stress at a free public talk hosted by the University of Leeds.

Waite’s story is an inspirational one. “I was in a room by myself chained to the wall, with no freedom of movement and no natural light for five years, but occasionally electric light. I had no books and papers for over three-and-a-half years and in a situation of isolation like that you begin to see your physical body deteriorates,” he says.

However, he discovered an inner resilience he didn’t realise he possessed. “An extreme experience like this which, mercifully, most people won’t have to face, does provide you with new opportunities and you discover things about yourself. For instance I didn’t realise I had an ability to write but since coming out I’ve written six books.”

His first book, Taken on Trust, was written almost entirely in his head during his time in captivity. He learned, too, about the brain’s reactions and the impact this had on his memory. “I couldn’t remember how I had come to make contact with my captors. It was as though there was a protective mechanism at work that the more unpleasant, and difficult, memories for the moment were being erased. Afterwards I remembered it as clear as day.”

Waite developed ways of keeping his mind active. “I’ve never been any good at maths but I did a lot of calculations in my head and I’d get absorbed in these long multiplications and that again was a way of exercising the mind and keeping memory alive.”

He says that talking about his own experiences helped him avoid suffering in the years after his release. “There’s a very good theory that rather than pushing down a very traumatic experience deep into the subconscious, try and write about it or talk about it. In other words, begin to manage it rather than being managed by it.

“What I did was I spoke about it and put my experience down on paper and I didn’t think at the time it was a therapeutic activity but it undoubtedly was.”

He says his faith helped, too. “I’m not the sort of person who wears their faith on their sleeve but I could say ‘you can do what you like, but you’ll never take me completely because my soul is in the hands of God not in the hands of other people.’

“I’m not saying I wasn’t afraid, of course I was afraid at times, but fear did not paralyse me and I was able to come to terms with it and somehow manage the situation.”

The Brain Power event takes place at the University of Leeds, on November 22. It is free but you must register to book a place. Go to www.leeds.ac.uk/brainpower

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