A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Does the head remain briefly conscious after decapitation (revisited)?

June 12, 1998

Dear Cecil:

In the answer about the guillotine in your online archive, you say that "the fatal blow induces immediate unconsciousness." In actuality, the human head does remain conscious fifteen to twenty seconds after decapitation. This was proven when a scientist condemned to the guillotine in the 1700s told his assistant to watch and that he would blink as many times as he could. The assistant counted fifteen to twenty blinks after the head was severed, the blinks coming at intervals of about one second. So the head does remain briefly alive.

Cecil replies:

Let's see. Over the years we've covered crucifixion, kidney theft, and now a second helping of decapitation. What next, you ask — how to perform your own spinal tap? But bear with me. New facts have come to light.

A lot of people disputed my claim that victims of the guillotine blacked out immediately. Many had seen a TV show on the Discovery Channel called "The Guillotine" in which a medical expert tells the story above, with the added detail that the scientist was the pioneering French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who was beheaded during the Reign of Terror in 1794.

Not likely. There's no mention of the blinking incident in the standard biographies of Lavoisier. When I contacted the expert quoted on the TV show, neurosurgeon Robert Fink, he said he'd heard the story from a colleague. The colleague said he'd read it in a book, but couldn't remember which. He admitted the story may be apocryphal.

But let's return to the original question, appalling though it may be: Is a severed head aware of its fate? People have been debating the point since the invention of the guillotine, and not just out of morbid curiosity. Some felt the guillotine, far from being quick and painless, was an instrument of the most profound and horrible torture: to be aware of having been beheaded. Numerous anecdotes and bizarre experiments have been adduced as evidence on either side. After Charlotte Corday was guillotined for murdering Jean-Paul Marat, the executioner slapped her cheek while holding her severed head aloft. Witnesses claimed the cheeks reddened (without blood?) and the face looked indignant. According to another tale, when the heads of two rivals in the National Assembly were placed in a sack following execution, one bit the other so badly the two couldn't be separated.

It doesn't get any better. In one early series of experiments, an anatomist claimed that decapitated heads reacted to stimuli, with one victim turning his eyes toward a speaker 15 minutes after having been beheaded. (Today we know brain death would have occurred long before.) In 1836 the murderer Lacenaire agreed to wink after execution. He didn't. Attempts to elicit a reaction from the head of the murderer Prunier in 1879 were also fruitless. The following year a doctor pumped blood from a living dog into the head of the murderer and rapist Menesclou three hours after execution. The lips trembled, the eyelids twitched, and the head seemed about to speak, although no words emerged. In 1905 another doctor claimed that when he called the name of the murderer Languille just after decapitation, the head opened its eyes and focused on him.

Is it possible? The aforementioned Dr. Fink believed the brain might remain conscious as long as 15 seconds; that's how long cardiac arrest victims last before blacking out. (Dr. Fink's colleague put the window of awareness at 5 seconds.) He also pointed out that people have remained alert after having had their spinal cords severed. Still, this didn't seem like the sort of question that could ever be resolved.

Then I received a note from a U.S. Army veteran who had been stationed in Korea. In June 1989 the taxi he and a friend were riding in collided with a truck. My correspondent was pinned in the wreckage. The friend was decapitated. Here's what happened:

My friend's head came to rest face up, and (from my angle) upside-down. As I watched, his mouth opened and closed no less than two times. The facial expressions he displayed were first of shock or confusion, followed by terror or grief. I cannot exaggerate and say that he was looking all around, but he did display ocular movement in that his eyes moved from me, to his body, and back to me. He had direct eye contact with me when his eyes took on a hazy, absent expression … and he was dead.

I've spoken with the author and am satisfied the event occurred as described. One can of course never be certain that anyone in this predicament is aware of his surroundings and realizes (briefly) what has happened to him. But I concede the possibility that he might.

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