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Do decapitated heads briefly remain conscious?

Dear Cecil:

A character in the movie Wolfen said that during the days of the French guillotine, some decapitated heads actually were cognizant of their plight. Since the brain can live over a minute without oxygen, could some of the heads have seen their headless bodies and realized what a predicament they were in?

Anonymous, Phoenix

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

You’ve been watching too many cheap horror movies — although frankly this kind of thing isn’t confined to the silver screen. My somewhat credulous mother used to tell us a story about a Catholic martyr who, after decapitation, picked up his head and kissed it. Not being dummies, we pointed to out to her that there were practical problems involved in a headless body kissing anything. Anyway, the fatal blow in a beheading induces immediate unconsciousness, even though the brain may not actually expire for several minutes. Even if the head were somehow miraculously reattached to the body, a phenomenon known as “retrograde amnesia,” common in accident victims, would most likely prevent the subject from remembering anything about the event.

NOTE: Cecil discussed the issue again in this column: Does the head remain briefly conscious after decapitation (revisited)?

Cecil Adams

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