Does the Head of a Guillotined Individual Remain Briefly Alive?

Exploring the 'Revolutionary' Legends

Marie Antoinette's execution on October 16, 1793
Marie Antoinette's execution; the (dead?) head is being held to the crowd. (Wikimedia Commons)

Of the many stories associated with the guillotine, one theme continues to dominate, receiving comments from historians, scientists, and students of urban legend: does a victim's head remain alive, albeit for a small period of time? It's easy to understand why this is so fascinating given humanity's love of horrifying itself.

Many Historical Accounts

The guillotine was invented as a humane and painless method of execution, one that brought an instant death to the working classes who previously were hanged for minutes until they suffocated.

But could the inventors have been wrong?

Plenty of anecdotes have been used by all sides, many of them dating from the French Revolution, one of the guillotine's most prolific periods. There are reports of scientists who asked their students to watch and record how many times they blinked (the scientists themselves being guillotined), murderers who tried to speak after their deaths, and rivals who bit each other while their heads were in a bag; all have been cited at some point. One famous tale concerns Charlotte Corday, the killer of Marat, whose cheek supposedly reddened after the executioner slapped it even though, at that point, she was just a severed head being held up to the crowd. But as any student of history will tell you, accounts have to be carefully considered, and periods of great upheaval have a habit of producing accounts filled with great descriptions which aren't always right.

The Medical Answer

The current medical consensus is that life does survive, for a period of roughly thirteen seconds, varying slightly depending on the victim's build, health, and the immediate circumstances of the decapitation. The simple act of removing a head from a body is not what kills the brain, rather, it is the lack of oxygen and other important chemicals provided in the bloodstream.

To quote Dr. Ron Wright, "The 13 seconds is the amount of high energy phosphates that the cytochromes in the brain have to keep going without new oxygen and glucose" (Cited from urbanlegends.com, no longer accessible). The precise post-execution lifespan will depend on how much oxygen and other chemicals were in the brain at the point of decapitation; however, eyes could certainly move and blink.

The Question of Consciousness

This solely technical survival forms only part of the answer; the second question is 'how long does the victim remain aware?' While the brain remains chemically alive, consciousness can cease immediately, caused by the loss of blood pressure, or if the victim is knocked unconscious by the force of the decapitating blow. If that weren't to happen immediately, an individual could, in theory, remain self-aware for part of the thirteen-second period. There is no consistency in this answer, as the precise length of both actual and practical survival will vary depending on the victim. Of course, this applies to many forms of swift decapitation and not just to the victims of the guillotine. On balance, it seems as if the most fanciful of the legends are false, such as people biting each other, but that it is possible for some of those poor executed victims of the revolution to have experienced a few seconds after their heads came off.​​

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Wilde, Robert. "Does the Head of a Guillotined Individual Remain Briefly Alive?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 20, 2017, thoughtco.com/head-guillotined-individual-remain-briefly-alive-1221876. Wilde, Robert. (2017, June 20). Does the Head of a Guillotined Individual Remain Briefly Alive? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/head-guillotined-individual-remain-briefly-alive-1221876 Wilde, Robert. "Does the Head of a Guillotined Individual Remain Briefly Alive?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/head-guillotined-individual-remain-briefly-alive-1221876 (accessed November 24, 2017).