How long is a severed head conscious for? The question has troubled students of the human body for centuries and generated countless, possibly mythical stories. History of medicine blog The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice has finally looked through the records to find out which of the accounts are based in blood-curdling fact.
A common tale involves someone trying to test the idea during the French revolution by taking a severed head directly after it has fallen from the guillotine and asking questions, with the unfortunate victim communicating via blinks until it loses consciousness.
We’ve covered exactly such a story previously on Mind Hacks, but historian of medicine Lindsey Fitzharris thought it sounded a bit too much like a tall tale and decided to find out if anything like this had ever actually happened.
She ended up on a wonderfully macabre journey through the science of consciousness after decapitation, involving everything from electrocuting severed heads to grimacing dead people:
The first to reportedly do so was a Dr Séguret, who subjected a number of guillotined heads to a series of experiments during the French Revolution. In several instances, he exposed their eyes to the sun and observed that they ‘promptly closed, of their own accord, and with an aliveness that was both abrupt and startling’. He also pricked one of the severed head’s tongue with a lancet, noting that the tongue immediately retracted and ‘the facial features grimaced as if in pain’. Was this my urban legend?
Right century, wrong story.
Fitzharris eventually finds the source of the story, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the, er, fun for you.