How long is a severed head conscious for?

In 1905 a French doctor wanted to see how long consciousness remained in a severed head and so did a rather morbid experiment at the execution of a beheaded prisoner. The remarkable report is linked from the Wikipedia page on the guillotine.

The observations were apparently made by a Dr Beaurieux who watched the execution of a prisoner named Henri Languille and immediately tried to get the attention of the severed head to see how it would react.

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. [...] 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[...].

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. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement – and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.

Apparently, this was also discussed in a brief article in a 1939 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association but I can’t read it because my institution’s subscription seems to be broken (off with their heads!).

The famous French chemist Antoine Lavoisier is often said to have arranged an experiment before his execution where he would try and blink as many times as possible before his head finally died, but the story is apparently a myth.

UPDATE: Thanks to Mind Hacks reader jata for a link to the complete 1939 JAMA piece on decaptitation and consciousness which is available here.

Link to full copy of the report.
Link to Wikipedia page on the guillotine.

16 Comments

  1. Posted August 7, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful or Gruesome …. difficult to decide! We will never be able to know how it feels from the inside…only the dead know that.

    • Posted February 6, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      Well, the dying may know. The dead know nothing.

  2. jata
    Posted August 7, 2009 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    Interesting stuff. Here is the JAMA pdf: http://www.scribd.com/doc/18249769/JAMA-Sept-9-1939-Queries-and-Minor-Notes-Decapitation-and-Consciousness

  3. Jamespoll
    Posted December 9, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    your site is a good looking site. i like it’s design. well done. keep it up.

  4. Angel
    Posted February 6, 2011 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    as you can see in this video, there is a rusian experiment where a severed head of a dog remains alive with an artificial hearth.

  5. Posted February 6, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Fascinating article – thank you! The link to Dr Beaurieux’s report is broken. I think this is the page you meant to link to: http://www.guillotine.dk/Pages/30sek.html (30sek.html instead of 30sec.html)

  6. Posted February 6, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    This one about decapitation in rats is also interesting: http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0016514

  7. Posted February 6, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    For a more modern study see: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0016514

  8. Bruce
    Posted February 6, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Mary Roach devotes an entire chapter to this topic in her book “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” (http://www.amazon.com/Stiff-Curious-Lives-Human-Cadavers/dp/0393050939)

  9. Posted February 6, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Relevant, though not really adding substantially to the conversation:
    http://threewordphrase.com/languille.htm

    Heh.

  10. Madelon
    Posted February 6, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    On a side note, perhaps: in popular culture, the research was immortalised by the Parisian horror theatre of the Grand-Guignol, with the 1928 play by Rene Berton, L’homme qui a tue la morte (or After Death, in the English adaptation).

    The one act play is said to detail the 1905 experiments, and, considering the fact that the author was a medical doctor, it can be assumed that the depiction was quite accurate.

  11. Dylan
    Posted February 7, 2011 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    What? Can’t you see i’m busy!

  12. Posted February 8, 2011 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_experimentation_in_the_United_States

    “There is no virtue in curiosity. In fact, it might be the most immoral desire a man can possess.”

    Yukio Mishima

  13. Ted
    Posted February 9, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I hate all of you.

  14. Ingy
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if any of they studied any of the beheaded people in the Middle East. Does it matter how calm the person is or how fast/slow the execution is? I saw the beheading video of Nick Berg and he screamed bloody murder the entire time and there was a plethora of blood from the severing of his head. If he had remained calm or they had used something other than a knife, is it possible that he might have remained alive longer after he was beheaded? I wish foreign countries would take science more seriously like we do in the United States.


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