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How long does a beheaded human head live? Taken mostly from New Scientist, The Last Word, 16 December 2000

An account from a Dr Beaurieux, of an execution by guillotine states that 5-6 seconds after the event the lips and eyelids worked with "irregular rhythmic contractions". After this, the eyes opened and rolled back. Calling the victim's name caused the eyes to move back into position and focus on the doctor and then go back to how it was. Calling a second time had a similar effect, a third call had no effect. The whole account describes 25-30 seconds of events.

There are accounts of victims of the French Revolution being asked to blink their eyes when they were beheaded. They are supposed to have done this for up to 30 seconds after but it is not sure whether this is mortal spasms or not.

I am not sure how much of this is possible. If you think about it, how long can you survive if your head blood pressure suddenly becomes zero?

Have you ever wondered why we no longer use the Guillotine to carry out capital punishment? If you have, this should help make things more clear

Note: The following was taken from An Underground Education by Richard Zacks.

  • 1880. Dr. Dassy de Lignières is given the head of a murderer three hours after decapitation. He pumps blood from a living dog into the head, and for two seconds the lips and eyelids fluttered. Concludes the doctor:"I affirm that during two seconds the brain thought."
  • 1905. Dr. Beaurieux is able to investigate the head instantly after decapitation. "Here then is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. 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 conjuctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day... It was then that i called in a strong sharp voice: "Languille!" I then saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contraction - 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 a 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."
  • 1956. Dr. Piedelièvre and Dr. Fournier conclude, "Death is not instantaneous... every element survives decapitation... (it is) a savage vivisection followed by a premature burial."

Decapitation causes death through loss of blood to the brain. In humans, the period of anoxia following decapitation may be only a few seconds. Unlike humans, however, some species have a much higher tolerance for oxygen deprivation, allowing them to live much longer after decapitation, and rendering beheading an unsuitable method for euthanasia of these animals.

The best-known example of such an animal is the reptile. Cold-blooded, often amphibious, reptile brains are wired to withstand long periods without oxygen, and may retain consciousness for some time after decapitation. Clifford Warwick, author of Reptiles: Misunderstood, Mistreated, and Mass-Marketed (1990; Nower Productions, UK) wrote that reptile heads engage in conscious, non-reflexive activity for up to an hour after removal, "writhing in agony" from the "massive severance of tissue." They blink, attempt to bite, their eyes follow movement, and they even extend their tongues as if sampling the air for smells.

Humane methods for euthanizing reptiles, according to that author and others in the field, should involve either use of anaesthetic overdose or immediate destruction of brain tissue.

Cecil Adams, The Straight Dope columnist, was initially skeptical of claims that humans retained consciousness after decapitation, but a reader spun to him the following story of a car crash, in which his friend was decapitated:

My friend's head came to rest face up, and (from my angle) upside down. As I watched, his mouth opened and closed no less than two times. The facial expressions he displayed were first of shock or confusion, followed by terror or grief. I cannot exaggerate and say that he was looking all around, but he did display ocular movement in that his eyes moved from me to his body and back to me. He had direct eye contact with me when his eyes took on a hazy, absent expression... and he was dead.

Adams declared that he had re-opened his mind on the subject. (http://www.newtimesbpb.com/issues/1998-06-11/columns.html)

During the French Revolution, when everyone was a little excited about using the guillotine, one aristocratic scientist, an Antoine Lavoisier (thanks mirv!), decided to see if there really was life after death. Sentenced to die by beheading, he vowed to perform a final experiment: he would blink for as long as he remained conscious. As his head rolled away, observers recorded that he blinked five times.

I'm a pilot for a living and I have been flying for over 20 years. While I'm not a doctor, something I wanted to add to this discussion was the experiences I have had in altitude chambers, where we were exposed to oxygen deprevation and hypoxia.

They bring the altitude chamber to 25,000, 30,000, and/or 35,000 feet, depending on the training (I've done all 3) and individuals take turns removing their oxygen masks and trying to function at those altitudes.

One student, a pilot training candidate, took his off at 35,000.

Within approximately 20 seconds, his lips and fingernails were blue (cyanosis), his speech was slurred, and he was having difficulty thinking (we're asked to perform simple tasks, like writing our names, etc).

By 30 seconds, he was no longer responding; however, his eyes were opened and he was looking around. He didn't fall over or pass out. This is normal for hypoxia, though it differs from how Hollywood and the media portray it.

He was told he was "going to die" if he "didn't put his mask on".

After repeated attempts, finally the instructor told the student next to him to put the incapacitated student's mask back on for him.

Before he could do that, one of the other students yelled, "EJECT, EJECT, EJECT!" The hypoxic student immediately started reaching for the ejection handles.

As soon as his mask was back on, the student returned to trying to write his name on the paper and was unaware of what happened inbetween, thus he had no memory of being told he was going to die or that he tried to eject.

I think the lesson here is that there are reflexive responses and there are conscious responses.

In the case of beheading, yelling the victim's name and having him look towards you definitely indicates brain activity on some levels, but the response may be purely reflexive, and does not necessarily indicate that the victim is conscious and aware.

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