Do you really stay conscious after being decapitated?

Dr. Francis Crick, the Nobel-winning co-discoverer of DNA structure and creator of The Astonishing Hypothesis.
Dr. Francis Crick, the Nobel-winning co-discoverer of DNA structure and creator of The Astonishing Hypothesis.
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The molecular biologist Francis Crick, one half of the research team that discovered the structure of DNA, later in his career came up with what he called The Astonishing Hypothesis. It is, crudely put, the idea that every aspect of human consciousness -- from affinity for one's family, to a belief in God, to the experience of the color green -- is merely the result of electrical activity in our brains' neural networks. As he wrote in 1994, "You're nothing but a pack of neurons" [source: Crick].

At the basis of our conscious experience are chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemicals generate electrical signals that form the means by which neurons communicate with one another and ultimately form neural networks. When we stimulate these networks, we experience the physical sensations and emotions that make up our lives. We store these as memories to be recalled when the neural networks that store them are activated once more.

The idea may be a bit glum, but it forms the basis of the idea that the electrical activity in the brain is the detectable trace of our conscious experience. By correlation, then, so long as we can detect this electrical activity -- through the use of technology like electroencephalography (EEG), which measures brain waves -- we can assume that a person is experiencing consciousness. This is what makes a 2011 study from Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands so troubling.

To determine whether decapitation, a common method of euthanizing lab rats, is humane, the researchers connected an EEG machine to the brains of rats, decapitated them and recorded the electrical activity in the brain after the event. The Dutch researchers found that for about four seconds after being separated from the body, the rats' brains continued to generate electrical activity between the 13 to 100-Hertz frequency band, which is associated with consciousness and cognition, defined as "a mental process that includes thinking" [source: Cleveland Clinic].

This finding suggests that the brain can continue to produce thoughts and experience sensations for at least several seconds following decapitation -- in rats, at least. Although findings in rats are commonly extrapolated onto humans, we may never fully know if a human remains similarly conscious after the head is lost. As author Alan Bellows points out, "Further scientific observation of human decapitation is unlikely" [source: Bellows].

Yet the annals of medicine following the invention of the guillotine have some very interesting scientific observations of human decapitation. These suggest it is possible to remain conscious after losing one's head. First, let's look at how we've removed heads in the past.

A History of Head Loss

Queen Anne Boleyn was one of the rare executed whose head was taken in a single blow.
Queen Anne Boleyn was one of the rare executed whose head was taken in a single blow.
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Cutting the head from the body has long been used as a means of execution, whether extrajudicial or state-sanctioned. For example, in the Biblical Apocrypha, a widow named Judith famously cuts off the head of an Assyrian general named Holofernes, who had been laying siege to her town [source: Vatican]. Civilizations throughout history have used beheadings as a means of punishment. The Romans considered it a more honorable means of execution and decidedly less painful than crucifixion, which it used to execute non-citizens [source: Clark]. In Medieval Europe, beheading was used by the ruling class to dispatch nobles and peasants alike. Eventually, most of the world abandoned beheading as a form of capital punishment, viewing it as barbaric and inhumane. That said, judicial beheading is legal today in the Middle Eastern states of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran [source: Weinberg].

The factors that have always made beheading so brutal are the tools used in beheadings and the people who use those tools. The axe and the sword have always been the favored implements of beheading, but they can go blunt and are subject to the physical force exerted by the executioner. While in some cultures, like Saudi Arabia, executioners are highly trained in their jobs, some historical cultures allowed unskilled workers to act as headsmen, or executioners who performed beheadings. The result was that it often took a number of blows to the neck and spine to sever the head from the body, meaning a painful and torturous death.

The guillotine was introduced in the late 18th century as a humane alternative to beheading. Contrary to popular belief, the instrument doesn't get its name from its inventor; in actuality, surgeon Antoine Louis invented the guillotine. The machine's namesake, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, was a physician who called for a humane means of dispatching the convicted and championed the device that now bears his name. With the invention of the guillotine, executions could be carried out more efficiently and post-Revolutionary France officially adopted the contraption in 1792. This major increase in efficiency led to the Reign of Terror in France, in which more than 30,000 people suffered the guillotine in one year alone [source: McCannon]. France used the guillotine for state-sanctioned executions until it removed the last head in 1977.

The guillotine developed a dreaded reputation in France. The author Victor Hugo wrote, "One can have a certain indifference on the death penalty as long as one has not seen a guillotine with one's own eyes" [source: Davies]. But almost from the beginning of its use, many sensed the guillotine worked almost too precisely.

The Guillotine Excels at Decapitation

A guillotine in an alley in France, circa 1920. Not the shield at front right that was used to prevent the head from rolling away.
A guillotine in an alley in France, circa 1920. Not the shield at front right that was used to prevent the head from rolling away.
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The circulatory system delivers oxygen and other necessary particles via blood to the brain so that it can carry out its necessary functions. Deprived of oxygen or blood, the brain's function deteriorates rapidly. Circulation takes place in a closed system based on a pressurized environment; blood is pumped in and out of the heart and past the lungs, where it is refreshed once more. Decapitation opens this closed system irrevocably, causing a full and massive drop in blood pressure, leaving the brain starved of both blood and oxygen.

Depending upon how the head is removed from the body, this loss of blood and ultimately consciousness can take longer in some modes of decapitation than in others. Several blows to the back of the neck with a sword or axe can lead to blood loss before the head is fully severed from the body. But the guillotine's design in particular makes severing the head cleaner and quicker. The blade and mouton (weight) assembly of the guillotine weighed more than 175 pounds (80 kilograms) and was dropped from a height of 14 feet (4.3 meters) from ground level onto the back of the victim's neck [sources:, Davies].

Moreover, the guillotine's blade was set within a track leading in a direct line down to the back of the victim's neck, improving the chances that a head will drop rather than be sent flying toward the crowd. A wooden screen called a shield further prevented any potential trajectory for a flying head. Instead, the victim's head generally went into the basket situated handily beneath the victim's head.

This made for quick and easy retrieval of the head by the executioner -- who merely pulled a lever -- after it was cut off. Picking up the head to show to the crowd was customary, and occasionally the executioner showed disrespect to the head as well. This was the case with Charlotte Corday, a woman executed by guillotine in France in 1793 after she assassinated the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat.

After her head was severed, the executioner smacked its cheeks while he held it aloft. To the astonishment of the crowd, Corday's cheeks flushed and her facial expression changed into the "unequivocal marks of indignation" [source: Ernle, et al].

Corday was the first, though not the last, severed head reported to show the signs of consciousness following decapitation.

Implications of Consciousness after Decapitation

Alice Cooper prepares himself for the guillotine during his stage show in 1975.
Alice Cooper prepares himself for the guillotine during his stage show in 1975.
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There has long been an argument against the concept of consciousness following decapitation. Some believe that the movements seen in the face are the result of the voluntary muscles that control the lips and eyes are merely in spasm after a sort of short circuit or from relic electrical activity. This is likely true for the rest of the body, but the head has the distinction of housing the brain, which is the seat of consciousness. The brain receives no trauma from a clean decapitation and may therefore continue to function until blood loss causes unconsciousness and death.

Exactly how long a person can remain conscious after decapitation remains debatable. We know that chickens often walk around for several seconds after decapitation; the Dutch rat study mentioned earlier suggests a length of perhaps four seconds. Other studies of small mammals have found up to 29 seconds [source: Khuly]. This in itself seems a horrid length of time for such a state. Take a moment to count off four seconds while you look around the room; you'll likely find you can take in quite a bit visually and aurally during that time.

This is what is most disturbing about the concept of consciousness remaining after decapitation; we may feel pain and experience fear in those few moments before death. This has been reported in a number of cases where consciousness appeared to remain following decapitation. Most recently, in 1989, an Army veteran reported that following a car accident that he was in with a friend, the decapitated head of his friend changed facial expressions: "First of shock or confusion then to terror or grief," [source: Bellows].

Both King Charles I and Queen Anne Boleyn are reported to both have showed signs of trying to speak following their beheadings (by executioners' swords, rather than by guillotine) [source: Maslin]. When he spoke out against the use of the guillotine in 1795, German researcher S.T. Sommering cited reports of decapitated heads that have ground their teeth and that the face of one decapitated person "grimaced horribly" when a physician inspecting the head poked the spinal canal with his finger [source: Sommering].

Perhaps most famously was the study conducted by a Dr. Beaurieux in 1905 of the head of executed criminal Henri Languille. Over the course of 25 to 30 seconds of observation, the physician recorded managing to get Languille to open his eyes and "undeniably" focus them on the doctor's twice by calling the executed man's name [source: Bellows].

For more information on decapitation and other forms of capital punishment, head over to the next page.

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