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Decapitation and Consciousness: How Long Can a Decapitated Head Remain Conscious?

BY Sonal Panse December 5, 2018
Decapitation and Consciousness.

A man about to be executed by beheading. (Australian War Memorial)

The question of what constitutes consciousness and for how long a decapitated head remains consciousness is something that has long interested researchers and regular folks alike. Stories abound of decapitated heads showing eye movements and emotive facial expressions, but are they true or apocryphal? Exact verification of such instances is, of course, impossible.

Decapitation as a capital punishment

“Off with their heads!” cried the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, whenever someone displeased her. She was a fictional character, of course, but many real-life characters in the past shared her passion for separating people from their heads for actual crimes, perceived crimes, alleged crimes, and political crimes.

Beheading was a common form of capital punishment in the past centuries, and it is still practised in some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, and Qatar. Executions often took place in public squares and huge crowds gathered to view these grisly spectacles, jeering, screaming, and even applauding the unfortunate fates of their fellow human beings. Sometimes, with hawkers calling out their wares and stalls set up to cater to the public, these events even took on a rather festive garb, and people even brought their children along. There are many stories of people knitting, eating, and gossiping as people were being guillotined during the French Revolution.

Around 40,000 people lost their lives to the guillotine in this period, and the bloodbath gives us some of the most gruesome anecdotes about the consciousness capacity of decapitated heads.

Notable incidents of decapitated retaining its consciousness

A famous example is of Charlotte Corday, the woman who assassinated Marat. After her execution, the executioner lifted her head up for public display and then proceeded to win some public acclaim for himself by insulting the dead woman with a couple of slaps. Onlookers claimed that, upon this, her cheeks flushed red and a look of anger crossed over her features.

In another instance, two members of the Committee for Public Safety, who had no liking for each other, got a taste of the guillotine blade one after the other. When the people assigned to clean-up checked the basket later, they found that the two enemies had not made peace with each other in death. Far from it, one of the heads had bitten the other and so severely that it wasn’t possible to separate them and they, perforce, went to the grave together.

The French scientist, Antoine Lavoisier, faced the guillotine in 1794 and apparently, he retained his scientific spirit to the last, informing his assistant to keep a close watch, he would try to wink at him, and then the world would know if a decapitated head really did retain its consciousness. In the end, though, he lost his head and forgot to wink. Of course, nobody knows if this story is true.

In 1905, a certain Dr. Beaurieux recounted his personal experience after the execution of a criminal named Henri Languille. The doctor called out to the executed man and Languille opened his eyes and looked straight at the doctor. This happened not once, but twice, and for around 30 seconds after decapitation, and the doctor claims that, in these few moments, Languille seemed perfectly conscious of what had happened to him.

Another hair-raising story involves a US marine, who was driving with a friend when they had an accident and the car overturned. The friend’s head decapitated right away in the crash. The marine saw his friend open his eyes and look towards his body and back at his friend with an expression of anguish and grief before he died.

In the case of animals, people have reported chicken heads remaining conscious for a few seconds after being decapitated.

The decapitation of Baba Deep Singh

A famous case of decapitation from India is that of Baba Deep Singh, who lived from 1682 to 1757. He was the leader of the Shaheedan Misl Tarna Dal, a Khalsa military unit that was part of 12 Misls that the Sikh Confederacy formed to counter the Mughals and protect the Sikh faith.

In 1757, the Sikhs clashed with the Afghan invader Ahmad Shah Durrani during his fourth invasion of the Indian subcontinent. Baba Deep Singh and the Misl Shaheedan attacked the Afghan army near Kurukshetra as they were returning to Kabul with prisoners and plundered loot from Northern India. The Sikhs successfully freed the prisoners and appropriated the loot. Enraged, Ahmad Shah Durrani ordered his forces to destroy the Harmandir Sahib in retaliation. They demolished the temple and polluted its holy water tank with slaughtered animals.

Baba Deep Singh.

Portrait of Baba Deep Singh. (Wikimedia Commons)

Baba Deep Singh took it upon himself to avenge this desecration even if he fell at the Darbar Sahib, as he declared to the congregation at the Damdama Sabib. He started out with an army of 500 men and by the time they reached Amritsar the army had grown to over 5000 well-armed Sikhs.

In the fierce battle that ensued with the Afghans, Baba Deep Singh was decapitated. There are two accounts regarding this. In one, he was completely decapitated, but he didn’t let that stop him. Buoyed on by the shouted reminder from a fellow Sikh that he had pledged to reach the Harmandir Sahib shrine, he held his decapitated head in one hand and continued slaying the enemy with the sword in the other hand. He continued thus right up to the Harmandir Sahib and died when he reached there. In the second account, he was partially decapitated and, holding his head with one hand, continued battling until he reached the temple. As he had pledged, it was here that he let his head fall.

How credible are these decapitation accounts?

Many scientists scoff at and dismiss these stories as unreliable or as outright fabrications. They argue that it isn’t the last dying gasp of consciousness that produces the observed or claimed reactions, but the last reflexes of the dying brain.

But this too is an extraordinary claim to make given the lack of exact evidence and no real way to prove it. Facts are the cornerstones of science, or so we always hear, but we don’t know what the real facts are here. There is much about the brain and human consciousness that we have still to discover.

What happens after decapitation?

It is necessary to understand a bit about how the brain works to get a handle on this whole matter. What we know as brain activity is due to the electrical activity of the neurotransmitter chemicals in our brains that help neurons to communicate with each other and form neural networks. Everything we think about and feel is due to the pathways and activities of our neural networks.

The brain requires a constant supply of blood and oxygen to remain functional and keep the neural networks working. If these supplies are cut off, the brain will die. Decapitation severs the blood and oxygen supplies to the brain, and the inevitable happens. The person dies. The question is, how soon does death occur? Immediately? After a few seconds or after a few minutes? And, if it is after some seconds or minutes, does the brain retain its ability to think and feel in this time? Does the person experience grief and pain?

Electroencephalogram (EEG) test on mice 

In 2011, four Dutch scientists carried out an experiment on lab mice to see how long they retained consciousness after being decapitated. They attached electroencephalography (EEG) wires to the brains of the mice and monitored the electrical activity in their brains. They discovered that the brains of the mice show electric activity in the range of 13–100 Hz for about 4 seconds after being decapitated. This is the frequency range for cognitive activity. The scientists observed a further wave activity 50 to 80 seconds after decapitation. The 13-100 Hz ranges come within what we recognize as consciousness, and this might signify that the mice experienced some form of consciousness after decapitation.

This is quite an extraordinary finding. Since labs use mice to test issues that are compatible with humans, we might surmise that it might be a similar case for humans.

It is certainly a difficult matter to verify. Beheadings are not as in vogue as they once were and not even the most scientific-minded purist is going to volunteer himself or herself for the sake of enlightening the world on this matter. In the end, we are not likely to find what the verifiable truth is in this matter.

Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “21 Grams Experiment by Duncan: A Glorious Attempt to Measure Human Soul“.

Fact Analysis:
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