At one time in history, decapitation was one of the preferred methods of execution, in part thanks to the guillotine. Although many countries that execute criminals have dispatched with the method, it's still performed by certain governments, terrorists and others. There's nothing more final than the severing of one's head. The guillotine came about because of the desire for a quick, relatively humane death. But how quick is it? If your head were cut off, would you still be able to see or otherwise move it, even for just a few seconds?
This concept perhaps first appeared during the French Revolution, the very time period in which the guillotine was created. On July 17, 1793, a woman named Charlotte Corday was executed by guillotine for the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, a radical journalist, politician and revolutionary. Marat was well-liked for his ideas and the mob awaiting the guillotine was eager to see Corday pay. After the blade dropped and Corday's head fell, one of the executioner's assistants picked it up and slapped its cheek. According to witnesses, Corday's eyes turned to look at the man and her face changed to an expression of indignation. Following this incident, people executed by guillotine during the Revolution were asked to blink afterward, and witnesses claim that the blinking occurred for up to 30 seconds.
Another often-told tale of demonstrated consciousness following beheading dates to 1905. French physician Dr. Gabriel Beaurieux witnessed the beheading of a man named Languille. He wrote that immediately afterward, "the eyelids and lips ... worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds." Dr. Beaurieux called out his name and said that Languille's eyelids "slowly lifted up, without any spasmodic contraction" and that "his pupils focused themselves" [source: Kershaw]. This happened a second time, but the third time Beaurieux spoke, he got no response.
These stories seem to give credence to the idea that it's possible for someone to remain conscious, even for just a few seconds, after being beheaded. However, most modern physicians believe that the reactions described above are actually reflexive twitching of muscles, rather than conscious, deliberate movement. Cut off from the heart (and therefore, from oxygen), the brain immediately goes into a coma and begins to die. According to Dr. Harold Hillman, consciousness is "probably lost within 2-3 seconds, due to a rapid fall of intracranial perfusion of blood" [source: New Scientist].
So while it's not entirely impossible for someone to still be conscious after being decapitated, it's not likely. Hillman also goes on to point out that the so-called painless guillotine is likely anything but. He states that "death occurs due to separation of the brain and spinal cord, after transection of the surrounding tissues. This must cause acute and possibly severe pain." This is one of the reasons why the guillotine, and beheading in general, is no longer an accepted method of execution in many countries with capital punishment.
If your head stays on your shoulders, though, it can still be damaged beyond repair. Next, let's take a look about how long brain damage can last.