How does it feel like to be beheaded?

Long story short, death occurs due to separation of the brain and spinal cord, after transection of the surrounding tissues. This must cause acute and possibly severe pain.

At one time in history, decapitation was one of the preferred methods of execution, in part thanks to the guillotine. The guillotine came about because of the desire for a quick, relatively humane death. Although many countries that execute criminals have dispatched with the method, it’s still performed by certain governments, terrorists and others. There’s nothing more final than the severing of one’s head.

But how quick is it? If your head were cut off, would you still be able to see or otherwise move it, even for just a few seconds?

This concept perhaps first appeared during the French Revolution, the very time period in which the guillotine was created. On July 17, 1793, a woman named Charlotte Corday was executed by guillotine for the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, a radical journalist, politician and revolutionary. Marat was well-liked for his ideas and the mob awaiting the guillotine was eager to see Corday pay. After the blade dropped and Corday’s head fell, one of the executioner’s assistants picked it up and slapped its cheek. According to witnesses, Corday’s eyes turned to look at the man and her face changed to an expression of indignation. Following this incident, people executed by guillotine during the Revolution were asked to blink afterward, and witnesses claim that the blinking occurred for up to 30 seconds!

Another often-told tale of demonstrated consciousness following beheading dates to 1905. French physician Dr. Gabriel Beaurieux witnessed the beheading of a man named Languille. He wrote that immediately afterward, “the eyelids and lips worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds.” Dr. Beaurieux called out his name and said that Languille’s eyelids “slowly lifted up, without any spasmodic contraction” and that “his pupils focused themselves”. This happened a second time, but the third time Beaurieux spoke, he got no response.

These stories seem to give credence to the idea that it’s possible for someone to remain conscious, even for just a few seconds, after being beheaded. However, most modern physicians believe that the reactions described above are actually reflexive twitching of muscles, rather than conscious, deliberate movement. Cut off from the heart (and therefore, from oxygen), the brain immediately goes into a coma and begins to die. According to Dr. Harold Hillman, consciousness is “probably lost within 2-3 seconds, due to a rapid fall of intracranial perfusion of blood”.

So while it’s not entirely impossible for someone to still be conscious after being decapitated, it’s not likely. Hillman also goes on to point out that the so-called painless guillotine is likely anything but. He states that “death occurs due to separation of the brain and spinal cord, after transection of the surrounding tissues. This must cause acute and possibly severe pain.” This is one of the reasons why the guillotine, and beheading in general, is no longer an accepted method of execution in many countries with capital punishment.

Top 10 Myths About the Brain

No, there’s no app for that. This is a painting inspired by Caravaggio’s (1573-1610) painting “Judith Beheading Holofernes”, by Gabriel Navar.

Another article mentions that researchers have found neurons, the cells that make up the brain, are active even after their blood supply is suddenly cut off. And they may show activity for longer than a minute. (Source: ‘Wave of death’ may not be a last gasp)

Dutch scientists measured the brain activity in mice after slicing off the mice’s heads. What they saw was a quick flash of brain activity immediately following decapitation – then, about 50 seconds later, another ripple of activity. This brain activity seemed to be the ultimate border between life and death. They dubbed the phenomenon the “wave of death.”

But this article has several counter-arguments. Dutch scientist, Michel van Putten of the University of Twente has done his own research on nerve cells, which communicate with each other through electrical impulses, and what happens when their oxygen and energy supplies are suddenly disconnected.

After an abrupt halt of energy and oxygen supply, the channels stop functioning normally, causing a buildup of positive charge outside the cell. This buildup prompts a big discharge of electrical activity about a minute after starting the simulation — the wave of death.

And, that means the phenomenon is reversible. So, if you got your head chopped off – since your eyes are connected to your brain, and they’re both inside your head – would you have an “off of body experience”? Nobody (alive) really knows. However, if neurons can’t function normally without a blood supply, those sensory signals probably wouldn’t make it from your eyes to your brain. (Source: How long can you live after your head is chopped off?)

But you might still be alive. Maybe. And if your head somehow were quickly reconnected to a blood source, you might live to talk about it. Or, more likely, scream about it. Because it is going to be painful.

Very, very painful.

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