Do decapitated heads briefly remain conscious?

In this column, the Slug illustration is mystifying. (In other non-news, water is discovered to be “wet.”)

Why would this illustration accompany a column about human beheading? The Slug illustration seems to be about an angry man forcing a liquid down the throat of a decapitated turkey.


This here is what we’re talking about.

As for the illustration… Hmm.

As for Cecil saying “the fatal blow in a beheading induces immediate unconsciousness” without any kind of cite seems odd. Is this automatic dismissal a case of trying not to think of the horror these such people have gone through? Or is Cecil trying to avoid satisfying the more morbid tastes of the teeming masses? Does anybody really know whether you pass out right away?

Yes, I’ve heard anecdotes of eyeballs and mouths working afterwards. Could be consciousness, could be nervous reaction. Fine. That’s not evidence.

Perhaps there is something to the unconsciousness thing, but wouldn’t it apply to other, non-fatal spinal cord-severing injuries? Do such victims always pass out? I don’t know that either.

I didn’t know the answer before I read Cecil’s answer, and I feel I still don’t know the answer, based on his terse and unsubstantiated statement.

I was also told in my youth that people experiencing a fatal fall pass out and don’t experience the actual fall. (And even as a kid I knew it wasn’t the actual fall that killed you.)

The master speaks, again, although still not answering the question about that damn duck.

Oops. Didn’t realize it was an old one, with a much more recent and detailed retraction.

Back to the subject of the cartoon…

Is it a rebus I can’t figure out? “You can make a headless turkey drink…” No, that doesn’t work.


The turkey is Slug’s metaphorical description of the “Perfect Master”.

Maybe it’s Mike’s?

At least I’m not the only one who noticed this. Perhaps someone simply placed the wrong illustration with the story?

In this column:

Cecil seems to be saying that people may retain consciousness after decapitation.

In “History of the Guillotine” (by Alister Kershaw) the account of Dr. Beaurieux is recorded:
First he saw in the head spasmodic movements of eyes and lips for 5-6 seconds. Then the face relaxed, the lids half closed, "exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to observe every day in the exercise of our profession.

“It was then that I called in a strong sharp voice: ‘Languille!’” The lids lifted, and Languille’s “undeniably living eyes” fixed on the doctor, after which they closed again. Moments later he called out again, fetching another look by Languille. But a third call went unheeded.

“I have just recounted to you… what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted 25-30 seconds.”
I found this site:
It seems to have some info, and there’s this cool fly (you’ll have to see it)

Anywho, I guess there’s only one way to know for sure. Any volunteers?

Here’s the whole report from Dr. Beaurieux as found @

Again, the web isn’t always the best place for ‘facts’, but you can judge for yourselves.


Read this report from 1905. The report is written by Dr Beaurieux, who under perfect circumstances experimented with the head of Languille, guillotined at 5.30 a.m. on June 28th, 1905
" I consider it essential for you to know that Languille displayed an extraordinary sang-froid and even courage from the moment when he was told, that his last hour had come, until the moment when he walked firmly to the scaffold. It may well be, in fact, that the conditions for observation, and consequently the phenomena, differ greatly according to whether the condemned persons retain all their sang-froid and are fully in control of themselves, or whether they are in such state of physical and mental prostration that they have to be carried to the place of execution, and are already half-dead, and as though paralysed by the appalling anguish of the fatal instant.
"The head fell on the severed surface of the neck and I did not therefor have to take it up in my hands, as all the newspapers have vied with each other in repeating; I was not obliged even to touch it in order to set it upright. Chance served me well for the observation, which I wished to make.

"Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck…

"I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions ? I insist advisedly on this peculiarity ? but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. "After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.

"It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. The there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was on further movement ? and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.

"I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds.

It’s a very short answer, so it undoubtedly was originally printed in a column with multiple topics. Maybe the illustration was relevant to a different topic from the original column. (Was it perhaps the drinking-a-bottle-of-tabasco one?)

I think Biffy may be on to something here.

Shoddy quality control at the Reader …

Hi all, first post here!

Could the illustration be related to this? This picture is about 2/3rds down.

Weekly picture:

Rild sent this over…this is a chicken that had it’s head cut off, yet continued to live. the owner took it around as a freak shown kind of thing. It had to be fed with a tear dropper and finally died one night when it strangled on it’s own snot…pleasant story to say the least. So, do any of you have a good explanation as to why chickens continue to function normally after their head (and brain) is severed? I’ve always known that reptiles and amphibians can lose body parts, which in turn continue to move for a while, but certainly not their heads!

Geez, my first post and I already blew it :smack: . It appears to be the same Headless Mike mentioned by Tir Tinuviel above.

One would think that if there were still blood remaining in the head and the brain were able to function normaly (even for a few seconds) then it would be able to send impulses to the eyes to blink and perhaps even see (because the optic nerve is connected immediatly to the brain, giving you an immediate reponse time when viewing something rather than a delay ). If the brain were still able to function (without going into the shock from the severing of the spinal cord and countless nerves being severed) then I would assume there would still be some brief “consciousness”. Speaking of course would be impossible without the aide of the lungs to bring fresh air.
Which brings up another point–would the immediate deprival of freshly oxygenated blood to the brain then bring immediate unconsciousness? I guess if some oxygenated blood remained in the brain then the answer would be no.

Shalashaska wrote:
“Which brings up another point–would the immediate deprival of freshly oxygenated blood to the brain then bring immediate unconsciousness? I guess if some oxygenated blood remained in the brain then the answer would be no.”

The immediate depriva[tion] of freshly oxygenated blood to the brain does bring immediate unconsciousness. I can say so because I’ve had it done to me. Not with a blade, thank goodness, and not by an executioner. By a good friend who was a Judo nidan. (Do I see light bulbs blinking into existence over heads?)

The carotid arteries, which carry oxygen to the brain, are compressed in a good judo hold. I have to say it took way less than the 20 seconds quoted in the literature for me to reach unconsciousness. It was just about instantaneous. After I recovered, my friend told me that he was once the subject of a judo choke while he was in the air going over a guy’s hip in a judo throw. He hit the ground unconscious. It’s damn fast.

That said, I don’t know if the cutting of the arteries results in immediate, total deprivation of oxygenated blood to the brain. You would think it would run out, but maybe there’s enough contraction of the arterial wall above the cut that some blood pressure is retained for a few moments. We’re told in the forensic literature that a man who is heartshot has about 20 seconds of useful, i.e. conscious life, and that perps have returned fire on police officers after being heartshot. Is there enough blood in the brain after guillotining to allow consciousness? Only Cecil knows for sure, and sounds like, in his later emendation (never a retraction - never), he believes yes.


** sultana of slash** the compression of the carotid arteries will trigger near instant unconsciousness, but it isn’t caused by “the immediate depriva[tion] of freshly oxygenated blood to the brain”. Because I’m lazy I’m going to re-post an answer I gave in GQ the other day.

A properly applied sleeper hold works far too fast to be the result of cutting blood flow to the brain and the resulting restriction of oxygen supply. That would take 30 seconds+ to produce unconsciousness on its own and would be hideously uncomfortable as anyone who has been choked will tell you. It would also produce minor brain damage every time it were applied. A properly applied sleeper hold will cause unconsciousness in under 2 seconds if done properly and is quite painless. It’s not something I’d do for kicks, but I have had it done to me and it really is painless.
The deepest carotid arteries contains a large amount of what is essentially empty spaces, the carotid sinuses, which surrounds the carotid artery and allows the neck to turn without tearing anything. Within the sinuses are blood pressure receptors designed to stop blood pressure to the brain getting too high and blowing out blood vessels or so low that the brain is oxygen deprived. While blood pressure remains at the right level high the receptors are happy. When blood pressures gets to high the receptors stretch and send impulses to the brain telling it to slow heart rate as well as flushing blood to the peripheral areas to relieve brain pressure. It also encourages the owner to stop working the muscles by asking then to lie down. The receptors also work when blood pressures drops suddenly but in this case blood is shunted to the brain from the periphery and the ‘lie down’ effect drops the brain to below the level of the heart. . In practical terms this results in giddiness and fainting. Try lying down and relaxing for a while and then standing up rapidly. Most people feel giddy due to the rapid blood pressure drop in the carotid sinuses. In some people actual fainting results.

The sleeper hold mimics the effects of elevated blood pressure. The baroreceptors are stretched by the external pressure and fire off a signal telling the brain to reduce heart rate and shunt blood to the limbs. It also stimulates a fainting response in the brain and the person passes out well before any lack of blood/oxygen to the brain occurs.

So although it’s more or less true to say that it works by cutting blood flow to the brain, the sleeper hold actually works by fooling the brain’s own defence mechanism into causing it to shut down. This is much faster and far less damaging than actually depriving the brain of oxygen.

Of course this does bring up the point that having a head severed will compress the baroreceptors in the carotid sinuses and cause instantaneous unconsciousness.

I don’t know, a sharp blade with a lot of velocity might cut through without compressing much, severing the head without setting off the baroreceptors.

Well if I ever have to be put on a Guilletoine, I will be sure to take deep breaths before laying down (maximizing oxygen in my brain (i hope)). Of course I will have learned to spell “F*ck You” in morse code using my eyelids, just to make sure they know how I felt about them and -their guilletoine.

This man survived after nearly having his head severed.

Apparently all that was still connected was the spinal cord.

Jean, the story doesn’t say that all that was connected was the spinal cord. It says that the spinal cord was connected, amongst other things. The fact that he remained alive for what I assume was over half an hour tells us that neither of the carotid arteries were severed. Had that been the case he would have lapsed into unconsciousness within seconds and died wihtin minutes.