Decapitated Heads Remain Conscience?

After reading your reply, Cecil, I remembered a story I’d heard a long time ago about the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who was, sad to say, beheaded during the French Revolution.
According to the story, prior to his execution he had a discussion on this topic with some friends and they reached an agreement that, if he could, as soon as his head was separated from his body he would start blinking and continue blinking as long as he could, as a signal to his friends that he was still conscience. The story went on to say that after the blade fell he blinked 17 times.
I looked this up on-line and saw that you had commented on this story several years ago, saying it was most likely untrue.
Still, even so, it makes a great story-- if you are into the gruesome and morbid.

Even if untrue, I thought it was worth dredging it up again.


Santa Cruz’n’: When you start a thread commenting on one of Cecil’s columns, it’s helpful to other readers if you provide a link. Saves lots of searching time, and helps keep us all on the same page.

In this case, I presume you’re commenting on Cecil’s column from 1982:
And, as you say, Cecil did comment on the Lavoisier story, in a later column from 1998:

Yeah, a great story. As is the concluding story that Cecil mentions.

That story has not been confirmed, but has been repeated many times. It was the topic of discussion over on the Snopes message board several years ago, and this post cited the relevant sources. It remains unsubstantiated.

Thanks, C.K.
There were also stories of the executioners during “The Terror,” believing this to be true, deliberately held up the newly severed heads of the victims so they could see their own bodies and, thus, add to their horror-- which the masses believed they firmly deserved.

Santa Cruz, CA

Welcome, Santa Cruz’n’.

We had our last good thread on this in 2006.

Here’s a link to that one. It was pretty good on information as to just why the idea that a person’s severed head would not likely have any ability to function more than a second or so after beheading. It’s an interesting read. In it, I and a few others tend to disagree with Cecil on the matter.

Seemed to me Cecil asked a bit more credulity than usual of the Millions on that topic - even with a bit of a breathless tone, IIRC, like a camp counselor telling a ghost story. It was as if he wanted to believe.

Maybe he just lost his head there, for a moment. :eek:

The words “conscious[ness]” and “conscience”, although etymologically related, have been distinct in meaning since medieval times, perhaps even classical (I am traveling, and do not have either the OED or Lewis’s invaluable Studies in Words to hand).

The question as given must be filed, at least for the present, under “theological conundrums”.

Just to note that there was an old thread (2006) on this topic, that has some interesting comments:

I’ve closed it, so the discussion can continue here (rather than merge the threads or let two run simultaneously on the same topic.) If you want to respond to a post in the prior thread, you may do so here.

From a recent post on the zombie thread:

However, there is no DISproof. We can conjecture that our consciousness lasts for a time until sometime after our brains are no longer supplied with oxygen. It may not be minutes or even seconds, but decapitation is not an on-off switch. The chemical processees are too slow to be instantaneous.

In that earlier thread, chorpler observed,

I may be covering old ground, but for what it’s worth, there have been studies in which EEG electrodes have been hooked up to the heads of rats about to undergo decapitation. (These studies were carried out to determine whether decapitation as a means of euthanasia was humane.) To my mind, these studies are useful because they address the nature of the electrical signal remaining in the decapitated head; this electrical activity is meaningful in assessing levels of consciousness and perception.

Mikeska and Klemm (1975) observed that significant EEG activity (of a very specific nature, which turns out to resemble that experienced in REM sleep) lasted 13.6 sec (± 4.6 sec) after decapitation; no electrical activity was recorded after 27.2 sec (± 4.4 sec) after decapitation.

Vanderwolf and co-workers (1988) found similar duration and quality of electrical activity after decapitation, bit they argue that there’s unlikely any “conscious awareness of pain and distress” after decapitation because that specific type of electrical activity is also present in animals rendered deeply unconscious by volatile anesthetics. This group also noted that the signals recorded from severed heads was very different from those recorded from intact, conscious animals experiencing pain. The authors concluded that at best there’s a very brief period of consciousness (a couple of seconds) and no perception of pain in the severed head.

Derr (1991) looked at oxygen tension within the decapitated head itself and made assumptions about the metabolism taking place within the head after decapitation. Derr notes that,

Holson (1992) followed up with a literature review and concluded that,

I gather, then, that while you can observe some sort of significant electrical activity in a severed rat head for up to about 14 sec, this electrical activity is not a meaningful indicator of consciousness or pain perception (because of the nature of the electrical waves themselves), and that a severed rat head loses consciousness within a matter of seconds because of blood and oxygen loss. Tough to know how this translates to human decapitation, of course, given the large volume of blood (however momentary) in human brain as compared to rat brain.

It’s probably difficult to compare what a human intact head may experience when suddenly deprived of blood flow (e.g., when the heart stops beating) and what a human head may experience after decapitation. After all, the former still contains pooled, though obviously rapidly deoxygenating blood; the latter, not so much. I think it’s logical to conclude that the decapitated brain udergoes a more rapid loss of consciousness, simply because of actual blood loss. (In fact, a study by Cartner et al. [2007] indicates that electrical activity fades more rapidly in the decapitated head of a mouse than in its intact, though cardiac-arrested counterpart.)

On a related note: Assuming it’s operated properly, does the guillotine blade still move slowly enough that a person could feel it go through? Even if the head can no longer feel pain once decapitation is complete, is the process itself likely to be painful?

The mechanism is slightly different, as is the physiological response, but I believe it’s relevant.

There is a group of people who specialize in causing loss of consciousness via restriction of the carotid arteries - grappling martial artists who fight for submissions. Practitioners of judo, submission wrestling, modern mixed martial arts and particularly, Brazilian jiujitsu do this on a regular basis. Of course, the idea is to tap out when the other guy locks in, but on a fairly regular basis, people do pass out.

First, a clarification of terminology. By mistranslation, convention and convenience, most martial artists switch the terms “choke” and “strangle” from the standard definition to mean blocking the arteries and blocking the airways, respectively, though often, the terms are used interchangeably. For this post, when I refer to a “choke” I am referring to blocking constricting flow, not air flow.

Most simple chokes work by constricting both carotid arteries at once. You can google “rear naked choke” or “triangle choke” if you’d like to see the positioning. Pressure on the throat/direct pressure on the trachea to restrict breathing is possible, but is generally regarded as inefficient. The general idea is to get two limbs, either his or yours, on either side of the neck. Then you apply leverage and squeeze.

Once a good choke is locked in, loss of consciousness happens anywhere between 3-5 seconds, depending on the individual. Any choke that takes longer is because one side of the neck or the other simply hasn’t had enough pressure applied to it.

This is why you will see fighters tapping out within a second or two of a proper choke being locked in. The effects are almost instantaneous. A fighter who waits a second or two too long usually ends up going to sleep. Lasting more than 5 seconds against a set rear naked choke is simply just unheard of.

I can’t speak to the spinal cord severing nor to it’s neurological effects, but from an available oxygen point of view, you only get a few seconds at most.

The X factor in this is that it’s very difficult to only restrict the carotids without constricting the jugulars or hitting the pressure receptors that run along them. You know the moment when someone’s slapped a solid choke on when you start feeling an incredible pressure in your head. (This is generally a pretty good indicator that you should tap immediately.) So there’s the chance that loss of consciousness during a choke is due to a drastic change in blood pressure and not necessarily the carotid artery restriction.

There is some conflict in the literature about the causal mechanism of LOC but one way or another, the head gets five seconds at most when the blood vessels are completely or almost completely restricted.

Again, while I realize the mechanism is different, it’s about as close as you can get. Without fresh oxygen or when something drastic happens both sets of blood vessels, 3-5 seconds.

Is it just me, or does noone apply logic to this dilemma: A large, heavy piece of metal hitting near the head is going to knock the victim unconcious solely from the force of it, regardless of how much damage it does otherwise (and I’ll bet money, back in those days, the blades weren’t kept very sharp).

So… we get the stories of the head staying alive for a few seconds when the blade was sharp and the support structure holding the head and torso is very rigid, as well as the ‘normal’ cases of the victims getting knocked out, resulting in ‘instant death’. I imagine it would have been just chance, with the latter much more likely simply because, well, you know, back then they didn’t seem to put much effort into stuff like sharpening guillotine blades, or how structurally sound the wooden parts were. There’s plenty of examples of convicts let free because their gallows broke, for example.

The brain is very self contained. As far as I know, the only thing It really needs is fresh, oxygenated blood and a few odd chemicals in it, normally supplied by other organs in the body. I am just theorizing, but I see no reason it would instantly shut down just because it got chopped off.

If all the other reasons in this thread aren’t good enough for you, just think blood pressure. I have seen animal decapitations on select occasion, and what happens is that a huge volume of blood gets dumped out through the jugular vein in 1-2 seconds… far too much blood to maintain the blood pressure required for consciousness.

oogabooga said:

No, it’s not just you, a lot of people don’t apply logic to the dilemma. :wink:

Question: How sharp does a blade need to be to decapitate a human? How much force was imparted through that blade? Incidently, you should address why the Guillotine was invented as a humane alternative to the axe.

Furthermore, you might wish to address how impacts cause unconsciousness, and why a sharp place severing a head is the same as a blunt object striking the skull.

There are?

Rapid blood loss means no blood pressure. You know what happens when people lose blood pressure to their brain? They pass out. Pilots in high-performance aircraft do it. People who stand up from lying down too quickly get dizzy because of it. You mentioned that oxygenated blood being required. Well, that blood rapidly isn’t there, to put the oxygen where it is needed.