A common and favored method of execution in ages long past, decapitation is one of the cruelest and frightening human practices. Its employment sends a powerful message of punishment and seeing how its been used for thousands of years, it’s been most effective. There are numerous accounts and stories of how some decapitated heads still move their eyes or channel a certain face expression, usually of anguish or despair, or even utter sounds despite being severed from the rest of the body. This begs the question, how long does a person stay conscious after being decapitated?
Civilizations through out history have used beheading for executions. For example, in the Biblical Apocrypha, a widow named Judith famously cuts off the head of an Assyrian general named Holofernes, who had been laying siege to her town. Other written accounts of decapitations date back from the times from the Roman Empire or Greece. In Middle Ages beheading was a fashionable means of punishment, typically for high degree theft and treason. The practice continued, surprisingly for some of you, well up until the XXth century in most parts part of the world, when it was finally replaced by the “more humane” shooting. Still, judicial beheading is legal today in the Middle Eastern states of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran.
There has long been an argument against the concept of consciousness following decapitation. The general consensus is that following decapitation, the brain suffers a massive drop in blood pressure. With the crucial blood and oxygen it needs to function properly, the brain would go into a coma, even death typically occurs in a few seconds. How fast would this coma occur?
Regarding the tales of face movements shortly following decapitation, physicians believe that these are simply the result of involuntary muscle spasms that, for instance, control the lips and eyes – a sort of shortcircuit or relics of electrical signals. Clearly this is the case for certain for the body movements following beheading, but the actual head houses the brain, the seat of consciousness. In theory, if no physical trauma is applied to the head (powerful smack), the brain should function until blood loss causes loss of consciousness.
A study performed in 2011 by Dutch scientists found that mice, whose scalps were hooked on electroencephalography machines, still preserved electrical activity whose frequencies indicated conscious activity for nearly four seconds after the mice were decapitated. Other studies of small mammals have found up to 29 seconds. If this is also valid for humans, then it would provide enough time for a most gruesome experience, and might also explain some of the recalled stories.
Enjoyed this article? Join 40,000+ subscribers to the ZME Science newsletter. Subscribe now!