Conscious after decapitation?

When I was a kid and we studied the French Revolution, and, of course, the guillotine, the class buzzed with rumors that the executed could briefly maintain consciousness after decapitation. Damn Interesting just reposted a short piece on that notion of "Lucid Decapitation." From Damn Interesting:
 Content Guillotine In the heyday of the guillotine during the French Revolution, it is said that many of the condemned were asked to blink for as long as possible after decapitation. While many reportedly did not blink at all, some complied for as long as thirty seconds. Still other observations describe much more specific reactions to stimuli following beheading. Consider the case of Languille, a convicted murderer who was guillotined in France. He was observed by Dr. Beaurieux during his execution at 5:30am on June 28th, 1905. As written in Archives d'Anthropologie Criminelle, here are the doctor's observations:

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 … I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased.

The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead.

It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: 'Languille!' I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions … Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves … After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.
Lucid Decapitation


  1. It’s difficult to see how this is possible. Loss of blood volume causes virtually instantaneous shock and unconsciousness. Having 90% of your blood go with your body and the remaining 10% disappear pronto through the freaking great holes at the bottom of your severed neck…well.

  2. There are also instances of this kind of thing in Samurai history. …some of them border on the fantastical, though.

  3. There’s a really interesting book called “Spook” by Mary Roach which discusses this, along with that whole lose 21 grams when you die (could it be the weight of your soul??!?11!) thing, and a host of other things. Basically the question of whether we have a soul, and the various attempts people have made to scientifically determine if we do.

    It’s great. Really funny and smart.

  4. Okay, I can’t really explain why, but this reminds me of something my dad told me just last night–that as children in the 40’s he and his friends would catch fireflies, pull the glow parts off and stick them on their fingers like rings. While they glowed on for a while, I don’t think they continued to blink.

  5. Oh, come on, this country has been cut off at the head for the past seven years, 298 days. We’re doing fine.

  6. Robert Olen Butler wrote a book of fiction based on this very idea, imagining what people throughout history who were beheaded would think in that 1 1/2 minutes of consciousness, including Medusa, Anne Boleyn, and a chicken. It’s called Severance.

  7. TRUE! as horrible as this premise may be, it has been verified elsewhere: “…Soviet physician Sergei Brukhonenko developed a primitive heart-lung machine he called an “autojector,” and with this device he succeeded in keeping the severed head of a dog alive…” and there’s a film of the experiment:

    very troubling. -bg

  8. …the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead.

    I’ve seen more dead people than Bruce Cambell and with the vast majority, their eyes were closed, not rolled back, pupils blown (very dialated).

    Here’s an interesting read – What actually happens when we die?

    I have made the scene of one patient that returned from the dead. It was an elderly female in a total care facility. We received the call and was informed that CPR was in progress. The first responder took over CPR from the facility staff – My partner and I arrived on the scene and of course everyone back away from the patient to let us have access. The lady sat up and started talking to us. It was a miracle! -or vitals weren’t properly checked prior to our arrival. I’m betting it was the latter.

  9. The photo (which I’m not going to look at too closely) is a little surreal — all those well-dressed, “civilized” gentlemen standing around in top hats looking at a barbaric device designed to mutilate a human being, with head and body baskets at the ready. Ugh.

  10. reminds me of that movie Re-animator. the kid severed his profs head and placed it in a pan of blood. injected his re-animator serum and BLAM! dude is alive again.
    also he injected his body and that came back to life too

  11. I agree with Pauldrye. When you loose blood pressure or just circulation to the brain you go down very quickly. Decapitation is so much more severe than the choking game and the chocking game puts kids down fast.

    I don’t for a second believe a severed head stays conscious for more than a few seconds at best. What -may- be happening is that you have an unconscious or delirious head. That might respond to it’s name being called or it’s face being smacked, that might babble on for a while.

    I said -may- be going on, it is really hard to imagine much function going on in a head where almost all the blood has just spilled out. Disfunction yes perhaps, function not so much.

  12. These stories always freak me out. I can imagine that blood loss and shock mean the victims of these horrors are only slightly aware of what is happening, but given perhaps only a second or two to process the fact that you are essentially dead I can only imagine the terror one might experience.

    Would you blood necessarily rush out without a heart to push it? might surface tension hold some of it in?

  13. I know for a fact that decapitated locust heads can stay alive – and alert – for several hours. Don’t ask me how I know that.

  14. I have a VERY distinct memory of a dream I had many, many moons ago….I was being executed in this manner and at the moment my head fell into the basket, I could feel my “soul” float out and up away from my body. Weird.

  15. In the heyday of the guillotine during the French Revolution, it is said that many of the condemned were asked to blink for as long as possible after decapitation.

    I don’t know about you guys, but if someone’s just cut my head off the last thing I’m doing is complying with some request to blink out of morbid curiousity.

    This brings up the question of what is Maru doing right now? Holy blood and guts Boing Boing.

  16. Blink? Hell no! I’d stick my tongue out.

    And it’d be cool if we could be precise enough to leave the brain stem attached to the body like the headless chicken. Societies full of headless people (aside from D.C. of course).

    1. Cheney is a head transplant.

      Why would you sew a head from the reject bin onto a body from the reject bin?

      1. Of all the possible ways to die, especially natural causes, I’ll cheerfully take 90 seconds of decapitated awareness. Most people die gasping for breath for hours or days.

  17. Ths s sch prrnt nd pntlss dlscnt thrd.

    f y rlly wnt t spclt nd dcpttns nd th ncts f Lcd dcpttn, chck t fw dcpttns n-ln lk th Nck Brg thng n rq, nd mltpl thrs frm tht cnflct nd fghnstn- f y cn br t- cn’t…

    (Srry t b sch bckt f cld wtr hr)

  18. bongogeff, keeping a head alive for an extended period of time is completely different.

    I have to say I’ve always been pretty skeptical of this sort of claim. Humans love to see patterns in things and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if muscle spasms upon death gave an appearance of blinking. In some cases that might even resemble eye-contact.

    As to the people who want a unicorn chaser, I vote instead for a decapitated unicorn. Unicorns are magical so maybe they’ll have a better chance given an unambiguous sign that they survived slightly after decapitation.

  19. @ bongogeff:

    More than a decade ago, I had the good fortune of interviewing Dr. Robert White of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Dr. White made several important contributions to the field of neurosurgery, such as cooling the brain in situ, but he is best known for his experiments in what he termed “full body transplants” in the 1970s.

    White successfully transplanted monkey heads, and was even able to keep their brains alive without bodies. An ethics adviser to the Pope and a Knight of the Vatican, Dr. White is a devout Thomist whose experiments, he says, were purely humanitarian. I, for one, believe him.

    Granting a cancer victim an additional twenty to fifty years of life doesn’t seem infeasible. The one thing White is quick to point out is: we have such knee-jerk reactions to these kinds of procedures that it’s doubtful we will embrace them any time soon. At one time, remember, heart transplants were not only considered too risky, but too grotesque, too “inhuman” to perform. Similarly, Dr. White and his colleagues were forced to finish their research in Russia, as it was regarded as macabre by many within the scientific community.

    Anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, there is little doubt that consciousness does continue for a brief time following decapitation. But if you think that’s frightening, low-level activity usually persists in mammalian brains for months, and in some cases years, after death.

  20. #32

    “But if you think that’s frightening, low-level activity usually persists in mammalian brains for months, and in some cases years, after death.”

    Okay, I gotta’ ask, if this is true, how would you account for decay?

  21. The Unusual Suspect: With all due respect to Uncle Cecil (which is to say, tons), I have to be skeptical about the claims of someone who has just had the decapitated head of his friend dumped in his lap. People try to make sense out of senseless events.

  22. @ Dv Revolutionary:

    I agree that decapitation deprives the brain of oxygen more quickly than “the choking game,” but that’s beside the point. The brain assuredly is conscious, and possibly delirious, for a few seconds. In the first instant, decapitation is more like holding your breath than hyperventilating one’s self to achieve unconsciousness.

    The brain is deprived of oxygen, and no doubt it is traumatic, but it nonetheless instantaneous, and therefor highly probable that the brain continues in its normal functionality until the lack of oxygen begins to make a difference. Human brains, as we know, can sustain a lack of oxygen far longer than a lack of blood. But it has been estimated that a human being can go on living for about three seconds without any blood. Of course, the brain would be in shock, but shock does not always cause unconsciousness.

    Also, it would be physiologically impossible for the head to “babble on for a while.” But more to the point, how many unconscious people do you know who respond to their names? Or follow a moving finger with their eyes?

  23. During the French Revolution, it was common for someone in authority to lift the severed head from the basket, hold it close and laugh at it. They were believed to be conscious for this final indignity.

  24. @ dbarak:

    It’s a medical fact; not an opinion. Decay doesn’t need to be accounted for to explain a continuation of low-level cellular activity. Even in severely decayed brains, we can establish that such activity occurs. We are only too happy to dismiss any notion that unsettles us, but I must admit that I do find it somewhat entertaining.

    In this very thread, we see comments like: “This is such a prurient and pointless adolescent thread.” Why even bother reading it? Why bother adding your two cents? The facts of life often seem morbid to people who regard death with a measure of unease. Scientifically, though, death is comprised of living processes. I recommend taking a peek at Shedding Life by immunologist Miroslav Holub.

    And as always, memento mori.

  25. #42 posted by takeshi

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disputing you, just interested in hearing the mechanism for continued activity. Any ideas where I can get more information? (For my experiments, of course…)

  26. So, some people take a few seconds longer to die that others. That’s not very interesting. What is far more interesting is the implied Milgram effect.

    If a scientist, curious minded nobility or some other authoritative a**hole asks you to do something for him while you are busy dying, you just might be likely to do it.

    If my head was about to be cut off and I was asked to blink as long I can after that, I would like to think I would have the self esteem to decline in very colorful way.

  27. What is far more interesting is the implied Milgram effect.

    one, that isn’t the milgram effect. two, several slightly more scientific attempts to reproduce the milgram effect failed.

  28. This was actually documented in George Bishop’s 1965 book, “Executions: Legal Ways Of Death Throughout The World,” now out of print. In the section dealing with this incident (in the chapter about guillotine), there’s a bit more detail, including the fact that the doctor had tried this unsuccessfully with a couple of other condemned, but that in this case, the condemned’s head fell into the basket below the blade onto the cut stump, limiting the immediate outflow of blood. That apparently made all the difference.

    Bishop’s previous nonfiction included “Sex Behavior Of The American Divorcee” in 1963, which sounds like it was the same basic topic.

  29. “White successfully transplanted monkey heads, and was even able to keep their brains alive without bodies. An ethics adviser to the Pope and a Knight of the Vatican, Dr. White is a devout Thomist whose experiments, he says, were purely humanitarian.”

    We truly are one sick species.

  30. nickieO

    If you really want to speculate and decapitations and the niceties of Lucid decapitation, check out a few decapitations on-line like the Nick Berg thing in Iraq, and multiple others from that conflict and Afghanistan- If you can bear it- I can’t…

    That was faked.

  31. I smell profit. Surely there is enough clientele with morbid imagination and means to pre-contract high-speed brain disintegration at time of death.
    Now, what shall I offer? The steam-hammer? The giga joule pulse laser? The oral grenade? hmmmmmm……

  32. The book I suggested is a good place to start, as it discusses in detail all the processes that occur following the death of a muskrat. Sorry for being unclear… the second part of my response was directed at the guy who called this a juvenile thread. I don’t see him making any significant contributions.

    Any neurophysiologist will tell you that activity continues in the brain following death. There is some disagreement as to just how long, but it is safe to say that it continues for far longer a period than, say, bone marrow activity. To be clear, it may be that many medical textbooks would omit such a mention due to the fact that what happens after death is generally of more concern to theologians than doctors.

    I first learned of this when I conducted my interview with Dr. White, and during that time I read a considerable amount of material dealing with the human brain. This included a number of White’s 300 or so articles, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, many of which concern cellular degradation, and more specifically as it applies to the death of the mammalian brain. Until recently, he was the head of neurosurgery at Case Western, and the first person to ascertain that cooling the brain meant giving surgeons additional hours of time with which to operate. In other words, his is a trusted opinion on the matter.

    Also, I recall reading about continued post mortem cellular activity in a book by neurophilosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland, though I forget which one. It might have been Matter and Consciousness, but I can’t be sure.

  33. Takuan, your talents are wasted here, you should be working for Fox in program development.

    Clearly we need more data to settle the question. I’d like to offer the outgoing administration as a pool of likely candidates. Come on…. it’s for science!

  34. #54

    No confusion here, I know it wasn’t directed at me.

    Very interesting. Two things:

    First, it sounds like decay of brain matter doesn’t occur as quickly as other parts of the body (maybe a last ditch survival mechanism?).

    Second, I would assume that even though neurological activity continues, it’s likely not coherent or conscious. Unless, and this brings up a very unpleasant possibility, consciousness remains for some time while the rest of the body degrades more quickly – sensory and motor nerve fibers for instance. Alone in a box with your thoughts… When my time is up, cremation it will be.

  35. @ Patrick Dodds:

    “We truly are one sick species.”

    Again, Dr. White had purely humanitarian interests in mind. Just as kidneys and hearts are transplanted, so might others’ bodies one day serve as the vessels by which dying individuals are permitted another chance at life.

    White’s idea is meritorious: take the body of an athlete who died of an embolism, give his body to someone whose own body is succumbing to cancer. Assuming the cancer has not metastasized into the brain, this should provide years of continued happiness for the dying man and his family. How is that in any way sick?

    Remarkable, also, is the fact that White was able to keep brains alive without using immunosuppressive agents. These monkeys weren’t brain-dead or unresponsive, either. They could follow pen lights with their eyes, eat normally, and according to the researchers they showed a great deal of curiosity, affection, and emotion, just as they had before the procedure. In other words, they had not ceased to exist. No one questions that animals at the cytogenic level of monkeys have consciousness. Sustaining the life of a brain is fundamental in consideration of how best to retain said consciousness. I’m quite sure that if these surgeries were commonplace, many ailing individuals would choose life over death.

    Not so very long ago, prominent surgeons to royalty were saying that the heart, brain, and viscera of a man would never be invaded by a surgeon’s blade. I dare say we are beyond that line of reasoning in the medical sciences, and if you care at all about leading a healthy life you should thank your lucky stars for that. Brain transplants are no more “sick” than kidney or heart transplants. And humans, as a species, are considerably less sick as a direct result.

    But perhaps monkeys slinging their shit around is less “sick” to some people. That’s species chauvinism, I’d say.

  36. the outgoing “administration”? Au contraire, their demise should be lingering, not quick. For the monkey; mayhap the apocryphal oriental feast involving the locking collar table. Though instead of the usual Lecterian gourmands with their silver spoons, I see rather a careful trephination and a handful of his soul-mates: blow-fly maggots. A web cam of course, to document how his mouthings improve in quality and content.

  37. @ dbarak:

    Well, I think that to a certain degree that is true of some brain material vs. some material from some other organs. Although it should be noted that, where an embalmed corpse is concerned, sealed in a newfangled aluminum casket, decay occurs far more slowly than it would if one was merely chucked into an old pine box.

    But again, it’s important to recognize that decay isn’t equivalent to immediate cellular destruction. The human brain is a marvelous instrument, capable of a great many things. Our brains, in spite of popular misconception, actually repair themselves to some degree. Furthermore, regardless of what anyone says, it is patently false that we only use 10 or 13% of our brains. The brain – this 3.5 lbs. of gray matter – has given us everything we know. Our sensorial impressions, our dreams, indeed our consciousness itself is the direct result of having one.

    Inasmuch, given what we know about awareness and its functional dependency upon neurochemical processes, it is not a great leap of faith to conclude that the brain goes on being conscious for at least a few seconds following its removal from its host. Nor is particularly ghastly to speculate. But I suppose that some of it comes down to how you view consciousness. This is precisely why I am being cremated; I’m an atheist. I don’t think it’s completely out of the realm of believability that the brain does continue to “think” after death. Not enough is known about it to be 100% certain, but dreams, like death itself, are intimately linked to unconsciousness.

  38. #62

    For the record, I consider myself a “hopeful agnostic.”

    I’ve always been amazed at what that lump of dough is capable of, to have gotten as far as we have as an “electromechanichemical” entity.

    I don’t have any doubt that consciousness can continue for at least a little while after decapitation (depending on the severity of the injury of course), and I don’t doubt that some form of activity can continue even longer.

    To think that it can go beyond that is something this little brain of mine can’t comprehend. :) (Again, not doubting though.)


  39. This discussion has renewed my faith in the BB readership.

    Is there any online content on the topic of lingering postmortem brain activity?
    (other than here)

  40. @ nehpetsE:

    Wikipedia’s article on death raises the issue somewhat.

    Under the section called ‘Problems of definition’: “Even by whole-brain criteria, the determination of brain death can be complicated. EEGs can detect spurious electrical impulses, while certain drugs, hypoglycemia, hypoxia, or hypothermia can suppress or even stop brain activity on a temporary basis. Because of this, hospitals have protocols for determining brain death involving EEGs at widely separated intervals under defined conditions.”

    It should be clarified: the term “brain death” is a legal definition relating to doctors’ determination of a perceived absence of electrical activity in the brain. Cellular activity goes on for much longer, typically. Again, for more reading on the brain and death, the Churchlands make some interesting observations, as does Miroslav Holub.

    There’s plenty of information online relating to cellular and subcellular anatomy and cellular motility, but I’ve spent a couple of hours squinting at my screen already.

  41. OK, here is a link to an article called “Electron-Cytochemical Investigation of Acid Phosphatase in the Brain After Death,” from the Laboratory of Experimental Pathology and Pathomorphology of the Brain, Institute of Psychiatry, Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR, Moscow.

    You have to pay to see the whole thing, but the abstract looks promising.

    “Acid phosphatase activity was detected by an electron-cytochemical method in the rat and human brain. The lysosomes and lipofuscin granules were found to possess enzyme activity. The use of postmortem material showed that the localization of acid phosphatase is unchanged in the late stages after death.”

    In the preview, we also learn that that the brains were first minced to observe the activity. Thank you for the subtle phraseology, kind pathomorphologists.

    Here’s an article called “Progenitor Cells From Human Brain After Death” from the Salk Institute Laboratory of Genetics & Stanford University Dept. of Neurosurgery that may or may not have some juicy leads about how to harvest these useful, living cells from supposedly otherwise deceased brains.…42P

    From the abstract:

    “Here we describe the isolation and successful propagation of neural progenitor cells from human postmortem tissues and surgical specimens.”

    Sounds like the beginning of a tremendous spy thriller. And here’s another article discussing the importance of maintaining the post-mortem integrity of the cellular structures (preserving the semipermeability of membranes) of brain specimens used in the study of diseases, concluding, “the processes of autolysis that develop in cadaver material may distort the possible electron-cytochemical and morphological picture of the disease” being studied.

    It may be easier to stomach death when we begin with the fact that decay itself is many biological processes acting in simultaneity. In that respect, death is a lot like life. Like living, dying has a secret life of its own. Dying gracefully, even more secret.

  42. I would imagine that people complied when asked to blink for as long as possible to have an activity to focus on, rather than the fact they were going to die any second.

  43. Alive yes, technically for a short time while cells still struggle on with anoxia. Lucid, not at all with the catastrophic loss of blood pressure and the physical insult of your head dropping a couple of feet. I personally have experienced what it feels like to have your blood pressure drop precipitously years ago during an experiment when I was put on a tilt board where I was slowly raised from horizontal to vertical (to examine how a mechanism called baroreceptors regulated blood pressure). In my case not so well (a phenomenon called orthostatic hypotension) and my pressure dropped by half within a few seconds of partial elevation while I was still far from vertical. What happened? My vision went from red to black almost immediately and my ears rang so hard I couldnot hear anything and then I passed out. But lucky me, my head was still attached to my body and my blood pressure never dropped below 60/40.

  44. @ jack r:

    There is far too much evidence that the head remains conscious following decapitation. To assume that it can’t possibly occur, based solely on your isolated, non-decapitation-related experience, is by definition unscientific. Curiosity replaced with blind presumption.

    Wishful thinking on your part, I’m afraid.

    We’re not talking about a drop in blood pressure here. While a sudden drop in blood pressure over a period of seconds or even minutes could make somebody pass out, there is no question that not everyone would have the same experience you had, and frankly what we are talking about is an extremely hasty act of total head removal—quite a different animal. For a brief period of time, the brain is indisputably still being supplied oxygen by the blood, and unfortunately that might not even matter.

    If it makes you sleep better at night, believe whatever you like. But if you have a genuine interest in what really happens when a person is decapitated, you might benefit from regarding the brain with as little contrived mystique as possible. If someone’s arm was severed, how long do you think they would remain conscious? What if their stomach was ripped out? Their heart? Or what if their whole body suddenly… disappeared?

    The brain is complex, but decapitation doesn’t have to be so shrouded in mystery. It’s very simple, really. One thing we are certain of is that a human brain can remain conscious for a short time without a steady supply of oxygen or blood. Sorry if that fact disturbs you, but unless the shock of the beheading makes the person lose consciousness, there is no reason to believe they are completely unaware immediately following the procedure.

    And shock, unlike the guillotine, isn’t usually instantaneous.

  45. Oh, and I should also mention that I have a friend who lost both of his arms to a sheet metal shearer. Almost all of his blood, too. Even with welders pinning him down, tying off his arms with their belts and copper wire to stop the bleeding, and putting blowtorches to his arm stumps, he didn’t lose consciousness once.

    Until he got the hospital bill. Oof… tough crowd. True story, though. And the guy still plays his guitar with hooks.

  46. Have to:


  47. With zero blood pressure, I don’t see how someone can be conscious. Without blood it just will not work for a few seconds. People have been known to be fraudulent to sell something.

  48. Antinous@45:

    Of all the possible ways to die, especially natural causes, I’ll cheerfully take 90 seconds of decapitated awareness. Most people die gasping for breath for hours or days.

    Roger that. Compression of morbidity is the way to go.

  49. Somewhat related: Klaus Störtebeker (
    a german pirate, is said to have run 13 paces after his beheading. The legend goes that his executioner promised him not to kill all the pirates he managed to run past after his beheading. So his body is said to have managed to go past 12 of his men, until the executioner tripped him.
    (His pirates died anyway, btw).

  50. @ mark_p_s_2:

    With zero blood pressure, eyes still manage to twitch, focus, and move about steadily, lips continue to move, frowns appear, signs of discomfort are not uncommon, even indications of deep sorrow and anguish are reported. Movements and expressions of all kinds are well documented. You’re giving consciousness a little too much credit, in my opinion.

    Instant cessation of blood pressure is the beginning of the end, but again – it is accepted that the human body can go on living for three whole seconds without any blood whatsoever. How, then, is believing that consciousness could endure for a meager few seconds after decapitation any more ludicrous? What percentage of people lose consciousness during heart attacks?

  51. hasn’t the CIA and NSA perfected keeping a head going with heart machines and other support tech? They have had a steady supply of disappearees to practice on, unlimited funding and no oversight – surely there must be a room somewhere stuffed with still-functioning heads that are still giving up secrets?

  52. @ Takeshi. Really sorry. I would have been more sensitive with my post if I knew it would cause someone so much personal aggrievement. Still, I just can’t figure how you extracted the “contrived mystique” theme from it. And sorry I’m not in on all that evidence you refer to. Did you mean the original accounts of one doctor or other “conversations” researchers have had with heads, or perhaps some neurological studies of EEG activity? As to my own N of 1 experience, it’s not just about me. Everyone has carotid baroreceptors and their function is to maintain adequate blood pressure to the brain, especially in response to postural shifts.

  53. Takeshi,

    You have won. You have broadcast your point of view over everyone else’s, and ten time as often as any particular person. You have discounted everyone else’s experience especially anyone who has first hand experience with the limitations of being a vascular animal and how that effects our existence.

    t sm pnt y sd “Wshfl thnkng n yr prt, ‘m frd” nd nbdy brst t lghng t th prjctn.

    Y g n sng nly wht y wnt t s. Tk th mst chrgd nd lrd css nd sy tht tht s wht hppns vry-tm. Tk th n mst fr-t thr pprs by th mst tn-df rsrchrs nd nscnc thm s th hgh trth. Tk spcltn bsd n ths pprs nd mk t th bsln nyn ls mst cm t.

    Dn’t fr scnd shw ny skptcsm. Y kp blvng xctly wht y wnt t blv. t s s ct. S y n sm wy.

  54. Check out “Stiff, the curious lives of human cadavers” by Mary Roach. There’s an entire chapter “Just a Head” which covers this. Great, funny, informative read

  55. Always thought about this. There’s oxygen in the cells. Blood not required for minimal effort. Oh dear. That’s why if your loved ones are decapitated, you must hold them up and “reassure” them by looking into their eyes. Otherwise the go to heaven / hell bloody annoyed that you left them face down in a puddle or whatever.

  56. Robert Olen Butler wrote a wonderful book called Severance. He works with two ideas:
    1) The decapitated head maintains consciousness for 90 seconds
    2) In a heightened state of emotion the human brain is capable of 160 words per minute.

    Each of the entries in the book is a stream of consciousness 240 words long that goes through the decapitated person (some are historical figures)or animal’s mind.

  57. Did a large procession wave their torches as my head fell in the basket,

    And was everybody dancing on my casket?

    Now it’s over, I’m dead and I haven’t done anything that I want…

    Or I’m still alive and there’s nothing I want to do.

  58. While on this topic (no it’s not something I normally ponder) there’s another line of evidence to suggest that the loss of consciousness would occur extremely fast, and that’s shallow-water blackout. The usual scenario occurs when a skin diver returns to the surface after a long dive (usually involving hyperventilation). All is fine until just a few feet from the surface when suddenly the diver loses consciousness. The reason is not a drop in blood pressure (re: my earlier post) but from the rapid decrease in the partial pressure (concentration) of Oxygen. It results because of the decrease in water pressure expands lung volume which then lowers Oxygen concentration in the air remaining in the lungs and hence, the blood. It is an unnerving thing to see and is often fatal if the victim is not immediately assisted. Moreover there is little forewarning or dyspnea (the feeling of needing to breath). It can also happen with swimmers who do so-called hypoxic training (intentional underbreathing or more commonly swimming for as long as you can underwater). There are documented cases of swimmers losing consciousness as they surface (from just two feet or so underwater!) and unfortunately some of these cases ended up in drownings. The point of this is the brain is a big Oxygen hog (demanding at least 20% of the total supply) and significant drops in the supply quickly result in a loss of consciousness. Ninety seconds…no way!

  59. A friend of mine, Chris Sharp, curated an art show in Sweden, currently showing, called “Disarming Matter”, all about self-erasure. One of the pieces in the show is called “30 Second Text” and the text is the one is this blog post. Then after the text there is a post script which points out that it takes about 30 seconds to read this text, the same that it takes the man to die after decapitation. Can’t remember name of artist, alas.

  60. @ jack r:

    Just to make sure I wasn’t crazy, I called a few of my friends today to seek their opinions. Two of them are neurophysiologists, and one is a pathologist. Their answers?

    “Almost certainly.”

    “Most likely, yes, for a few seconds.”

    “There’s some question, but yeah… I would think so.”

    Again, I wasn’t saying that you were wrong because I have an interest in maintaining some belief that decapitated heads always retain consciousness. I don’t believe that for a second. To the contrary, I’m saying that your example is not enough of a reason to believe that it simply can’t occur. Plain and simple.

    Nor is the sudden loss of blood pressure. Sorry.

    @ Dv Revolutionary:

    “You go on seeing only what you want to see.”

    Unfair. I have seen only what medical science has shown me. I have looked to the professional opinions of doctors. Have you? This subject is one I have discussed with many people over the years, as if you couldn’t tell,which is why it troubles me some when you frame the argument dishonestly. This isn’t about what I want to see. I would prefer it if decapitated heads lost consciousness immediately.

    “Take the most charged and lurid cases and say that that is what happens every-time.”

    Again, more dishonesty. I have never said that this is what happens every time. And frankly, it is only those people who have said that this simply can’t occur who I have confronted with the stark reality that it is indeed possible; even likely. Furthermore, I have not taken “the most charged and lurid cases” as Gospel truth. Show me a single example where I have done this. I make the argument solely on the understanding that to deny its possibility is patently unscientific.

    “Take the one most far-out there papers by the most tone-deaf researchers and ensconce them as the high truth.”

    Where are you getting your information, Bucky? You seem rather sure of yourself for someone who hasn’t provided a single reference to any scientific literature. And again, point me to an example of where I have taken the “most far out papers by the most tone-deaf researchers.” Show me. Do it. You can’t. That’s because my opinion is based on a lifetime of (admittedly lay) investigation into the goings on of the human brain, and the countless (often quite mainstream) doctors and researchers I have spoken to. Sure, some of them are a little crazy, but most of them are tenured. Far out, man.

    “Don’t for a second show any skepticism.”

    Being skeptical of a claim is one thing, while denying that a phenomenon is possible at all, just because you say it is so, is lunacy. It is precisely for this reason that I am fiercely skeptical of your authority on the matter. And tell me: how exactly are you being “skeptical”? Seems to me that you’re just slinging around wild allegations about how I get all of my information from discarded bubblegum wrappers. Get a clue.

    “You keep believing exactly what you want to believe. It is so cute. So you in some way.”

    Aw, Sunshine. Looks like I touched a nerve. Hey, look… I don’t purport any knowledge of the afterlife, or what kind of cereal a decapitated head enjoys for breakfast. As pointed out here, there’s more than enough oxygen in the cells, and apart from that the remaining (though rapidly diminishing) blood contains enough oxygen to keep the brain conscious for a few seconds.

    I am deeply troubled if that offends you. Perhaps you should pick a different subject to be skeptical about. Or hopeful, or indignant, or blindly acquiescent. Not my life, thank God.

  61. @ jack r:

    I hadn’t read your latest post, and I think you make a good point. However, I would find it difficult to apply the particulars of various scenarios to the one we’re discussing. Yes, oxygen pressure is a big one, as is blood pressure. Loss of either is disastrous.

    I mentioned my friend who’d lost his arms earlier because I wanted to illustrate that some people do not pass out from massive blood loss or rapidly decreasing blood pressure. Some of it, as I understand, has to do with the position of the individual, which ties in to your own experience somewhat.

    But to assume that decapitation must render the victim unconscious is lazy thinking. Tilted tables and diving accidents are fair comparisons, but I’m sure we can both agree that beheading is an entirely separate matter. We have tons of anecdotal evidence for every kind of strange phenomena, yet this is fairly straightforward reporting, as opposed to, say, alien abductions, ghosts, and abominable snowmen. I’m not saying that consciousness can’t be anticipatorily mis-detected by an observer, yet I think there is more than enough empirical data to suggest that it does indeed happen.

  62. just because we’re having a silly hypothetical discussion on the order of can Batman beat Superman doesn’t mean we can’t be nice to each other.

  63. NickieO @29, I don’t see the logic in denouncing the prurience and pointlessness of a thread you’re reading, particularly when you follow it with a suggestion that people watch online videos of allegedly real decapitations.

    Takuan @52: What’s the matter with sliding into unconsciousness in a pleasant glow of euphorics and painkillers?

    Noen @55, what did the outgoing administration ever do for science?

    Jack R. @70, I think I can confirm that. Since I was 13 I’ve been intermittently experiencing sudden, severe drops in my blood pressure. It’s called vaso-vagal syncope. I usually have just enough time for a quick apology before I black out completely. If my eyelids twitch while I’m passed out, they’re doing it on their own initiative. It has nothing to do with conscious volition.

    DV Revolutionary @81, Takeshi’s interested in this topic, and has been a frequent participant in the conversation. You posted one previous comment at spot #20, and didn’t engage with the conversation or its arguments for sixty comments thereafter. Then you blew up at him in an intemperate and highly personal fashion.

    You didn’t do it at all well.

    You accused Takeshi of winning. No one has won this argument. It’s a chew toy of the mind, and we’ve been amiably chewing on it.

    Takeshi has not commented ten times oftener than anyone. He’s posted six comments.

    If he’d “broadcast his point of view over everyone else’s”, and the other participants resented it, they’re perfectly capable of saying so on their own behalf.

    You have discounted everyone else’s experience especially anyone who has first hand experience with the limitations of being a vascular animal and how that effects our existence.

    Perhaps I’m mistaken here, but it appears to me that you’re suggesting that Takeshi has no first-hand experience of being a vascular animal. If so, do you have any evidence to support the assertion? It seems awfully unlikely.

    After that, you said several more unpleasant things about Takeshi’s reasoning process. You still didn’t engage with his actual arguments.

    I don’t know what prompted you to react this way. Please don’t let it happen again.

  64. Takuan, I don’t mean to be mean and I hope I’m not going there.

    I didn’t see a big hypothetical batman -vs- superman geek fest I saw you talking over other people, posting profusely to prove a dubious point and I wondered what it meant to you.

    I don’t understand why you want to believe what you do. I don’t know what emotional attachment you have to it.

    I have none. I might have liked to think that xy and z freaky thing can happen in this universe. As I get older I have to confess they usually do not. In this case it possible though highly unlikely. In fact most of the observations we have say it usually does not happen.

    The vast majority of decapitations that occurred during the french revolution, those heads were dead when they were held up to the crowd. Some weren’t but they are outnumbered by the thousands that were. Some accounts shouldn’t be trusted, we get to Charlotte Corday and suddenly she blushes and looks “indignant”. I think this is the case of a political fable not a empirical observation. In twenty years her partisans had totally restored her dignity.

    D y ndrstnd the proportions here, as many as 40,000 clean kills and a handful of antidotes otherwise, some that may be politically or socially apocryphal?

    Y dn’t sm t when you say:
    “there is little doubt that consciousness does continue for a brief time following decapitation. But if you think that’s frightening, low-level activity usually persists in mammalian brains for months, and in some cases years, after death”

    Wht hkm. D nd t ct n rtcl t prv t y wht y r pddlng s hkm? Tht y r drwng nwrrntd nd nlkly cnclsns wth lttl vdnc. Hv y frgttn hw y rchd yr cnclsns? Yr mkng sm wld ssrtns, th brdn f prf ls wth y. thrs hv sd y shld b scnc rprtr fr Fx Nws, ‘m nt sr y wld vn b cnvncng ngh fr tht crwd.

    The original article kpt t’s hd bt t nd has this wonderful quote:

    “Can it be concluded that a separated head is capable of consciousness and awareness following the event? Not with any certainty.”

    Ntc th dffrnc n tn. Ntc th dffrnc n wllngnss t bck n ssrtn. f y wnt t prtnd t plyng scnc lrn thr tn. t s lwys cts tn, yrs s nt.

    Yr wllng t bck n thng ftr nthr ftr nthr vn f y cn’t rmmbr th cttn.

    Ntc hw the article was not willing to say movement equals consciousness. Kp t n mnd, it was my original point. If you think about it consciousness is a spectrum anyway not a binary thing. Your being very binary and leaving it switched on.

    As for authority, I have none and I don’t rely on it when deciding what is true vs false. I rely on research and a good argument. Y dn’t hv n nd y r brrwng thrty frntclly frm Dr. Wht nstd f hldng yr wn.

    Dr. Robert J White is a surgeon not quite a scientist. All due respect to a medical doctor his work might be called skill or art but I just call what you have been talking about brutalized animals. Take a look at what is suffering and mangled on the table and tell me what you see. I’m usually for animal testing and these experiments are not new to me but they are just useless. They have lead to no advance. They are unlikely to. They are a surgeon burnishing his skills and proving his point with the suffering and inevitable death of two animals at a time.

    Lastly you like to imagine that the blood might stay in the head if it landed right. I would like to point out that besides veins there are arteries going into and within the head itself. You know they have a wall of muscle and work to push blood along. Some have one way valves like the heart itself. Dr. White would have clamped them and re-sewn them for his horrific experiments. In the case of a decapitated head the arteries would be push blood out through the veins no matter what way it lands. It would be about to the count of two and the head is empty. One two.

    Pls thnk bt t nd try t ndrstnd thr ppl’s pnt.

  65. now where is my copy of Baldick’s “The Duel”? All there, the sabre match ending in decapitation, the modern duel with the the abruzzo of reconciliation after first blood.

  66. Dv Revolutionary,

    I can’t fathom why that comment is addressed to Takuan, who has made a few jests. Are you conflating Takuan and Takeshi (which sounds both moist and painful)?

    At any rate – sense of humor: ur doin it rong.

  67. Sorry I did conflate my Takuan and Takeshi. Very very sorry Takuan. Very sorry, moist as well.

    I work on the humor but quackery just isn’t fun for me and I hate to see it spread anywhere. I just couldn’t take Takeshi’s. Especially when it was shouted over other’s attempts at experiential understanding.

    I sign off on this thread before I become become the strange guy with an ax to grind.

    always doing it wrong,
    -DV Revolutionary

  68. way cool man

    I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment’s gone
    All my dreams, pass before my eyes, a curiosity
    Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind
    Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
    All we do, crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see

    Dust in the wind, All we are is dust in the wind

    Don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
    It slips away, all your money won’t another minute buy

    Dust in the wind, All we are is dust in the wind

  69. A Dv Revolutionary:

    “… posting profusely to prove a dubious point and I wondered what it meant to you.”

    Wasn’t posting profusely in any other topic, so I might as well do it here. This is one that holds particular interest for me.

    “I don’t understand why you want to believe what you do. I don’t know what emotional attachment you have to it.”

    Again, dishonesty. I have made it very clear that I have more of a desire to believe in the absence of post-decapitation consciousness, but it just doesn’t sit well with me, not to mention the six or so doctors I’ve spoken to since this morning, all of whom said it was a distinct possibility at worst, and a great likelihood at best.

    “In fact most of the observations we have say it usually does not happen.”

    Yes, I’m quite sure that you’ve counted. Actually, many of the anecdotes have reflected that some kind of consciousness appears to be present, but since you’re not concerned with citing sources, why should I?

    “[Trite, unmoving, highly questionable historical account snipped] Do you understand the proportions here, as many as 40,000 clean kills and a handful of antidotes otherwise, some that may be politically or socially apocryphal?”

    You do realize there is a difference between an antidote and an anecdote? Until you do, we can agree to disagree on their respective meanings. I’m sure you’ll try to say that it was a typo, but I know a display of ignorance when I see one.

    “Do I need to cite an article to prove to you what you are peddling is hokum?”

    I dunno. Do you?

    “That you are drawing unwarranted and unlikely conclusions with little evidence.”

    To the contrary, there is a great amount of evidence that such events have occurred, and far less that such an event could never occur. I am in no way obligated to teach you biology.

    “Have you forgotten how you reached your conclusions?”

    Nope. I’ve reached them the same way anyone does. With resources and my mind.

    “Your making some wild assertions, the burden of proof lies with you.”

    Wrong again. The burden of proof is the prosecution’s. My assertions are no more wild than your glaring misrepresentations of the things I’ve said. I’m not haranguing anyone for their beliefs; only iterating that the possibility of consciousness after beheading is there. If you truly believe in your heart that it is indefatigably impossible, I would once again call your comprehension of skepticism into question.

    “Others have said you should be a science reporter for Fox News, I’m not sure you would even be convincing enough for that crowd.”

    Not me they were talking about, but thanks. I do have a science degree. I have two degrees, in fact. How about you?

    “If you want to pretend at playing science learn their tone.”

    And if you want to pretend that your conclusions are superior to my own, learn the difference between “your” and “you’re.” I have no tolerance for those with more of an interest in espousing their intellectual curiosity than harnessing it. In a word, you are glib.

    “It is always a cautious tone, yours is not.”

    More proof that you know nothing about science. I can send you a list of links a mile long where reputable scientists make the most frighteningly spurious claims. If that surprises you, there’s a degree in parapsychology with your ever-so-skeptical name on it.

    “Your willing to back one thing after another after another even if you can’t remember the citation.”

    I’m not a newspaper. Where are all of your citations? Again, you have said that I resorted to “the most charged and lurid cases” to support that this “is what happens every-time.” Two demonstrable falsehoods. Anyone reading my posts here can see that for themselves.

    You speak of my taking the “most far-out there papers by the most tone-deaf researchers and ensconce them as the high truth,” another absurdity. And yet, here you are, whining about my lack of citations, while you bore us all to tears with tales of the “vast beheadings” of the French revolution. Where are your citations?

    “I rely on research and a good argument.”

    Not citations, though. Plenty of blanket accusations, selective research, confirmation bias. You’re scienterrific! Hey, I’ve read Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, too. We should start a book club.

    You believe that consciousness is not possible following decapitation. Contradistinctively, my own research has led me to believe that it is highly probable that the human brain continues being conscious for a few seconds after death. My research, my esteemed doctor friends, my opinion. Not as preoposterous as believing that it could go on for hours or days, but also nowhere near as laughably unscientific as believing that it could never, under any circumstances, happen.

    “You don’t have one and you are borrowing authority frantically from Dr. White instead of holding your own.”

    What a crock of malarkey. I brought up Dr. White in my first post because his research was apropos to the topic at hand. Not frantically in defense of an earlier point,but who expects the truth from you? You’re too busy with research and good argument.

    “Dr. Robert J White is a surgeon not quite a scientist.”

    I suppose you’re the authority? Listen up, Punchy… if a doctor has 300 articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, he’s a scientist. Moreover, all brain doctors, surgeons or otherwise, are scientists by definition, or hadn’t you heard? As a researcher, Dr. White made some very important contributions to neurosurgery. What, pray tell, are your accomplishments? How is it that you are in any way qualified to distinguish doctors from scientists?

    “All due respect to a medical doctor his work might be called skill or art but I just call what you have been talking about brutalized animals.”

    We might say the same about what I’m doing to you. If you really believe that, maybe you’d like to take back the last couple hundred years of research. Practically everything is tested on animals before human testing. If we were talking about cosmetics, you’d have a point. We’re talking about surgical procedures offering life extension… much like open-heart surgery. But yeah, you sound like way more of a scientist than that animal-hating meanie Dr. White. My humblest apologies.

    “Take a look at what is suffering and mangled on the table and tell me what you see.”

    Glad you brought it up. I have seen some of the footage, and what I witnessed were some relatively happy monkey heads affixed to other monkeys’ bodies. You should really investigate what Dr. White had to say about the ethicality of the procedures. It’s fascinating.

    “I’m usually for animal testing and these experiments are not new to me but they are just useless.”

    Spoken like someone who knows it all.

    “They have lead to no advance.”

    Bzzt! Dr. White’s research has led to significant developments in spinal repair, for one, but hey… you’re the expert. Still, you’re FLAT WRONG. Give the lady a cookie.

    “Lastly you like to imagine that the blood might stay in the head if it landed right.”

    That was never a central point. My argument all along has been that there is more than enough oxygen present to provide a measly few seconds of consciousness. How is that so controversial?

    “Please think about it and try to understand other people’s point.”

    If your point is that you are repulsed by Dr. White’s research, I read you loud and clear. On the other hand, if you were trying to demand that I let an allegedly skeptical, overarchingly scrupulous non-scientist like you tell a scientist like me what to believe, you’ve failed in that endeavor.

    I wish you luck in your future research. Don’t forget to blink.

  70. Teresa – chew toy of the mind so much better than mental masturbation.

    Takeshi, First I’ve been lurking at your elbow like the unknown drunk to your left. Secondly, I’ve no concern as to whether this occurs other than it makes good theatre. I comment only to say, I find posts that copy, paste, and respond to comments line by tedious line, well tedious. Posts of this type are wholly unnecessary and wasteful of time, both yours and ours. Please take this to heart, trust your readers, they will grok your meaning without the reminders.

  71. Takeshi –

    The crux of the Dr’s complaint seems to be this:

    Citation Please.

    Withering criticism demands superior evidence.

    Can we have some, or is this about scrolling down until the audience gives up?

  72. I’m not a neurobiologist but I am a molecular biologist, so I have the grounding to understand the papers that Takeshi posted. I’ll admit that I only skimmed them because I’ve spent enough of my weekend reading scientific papers already.

    Those papers basically say that:
    1) After the patient dies, the brain cells stay basically the same shape
    2) The lysosomes (small acidic compartments within the cells) still contain active enzymes
    3) Shortly after a patient (well, rat in this case) dies, there are still some living cells.
    4) If you want to study how a patient died, it’s important to take steps to preserve the neurological tissues before they degrade.

    I’m happy to accept all of this, but if these are typical examples of the “cellular activity” you were referring to, they’re pretty much meaningless in terms of conciousness.

    Enzymes, as I’m sure you all know, are biological catalysts. They’re (generally) evolved to remain stable in their environment and won’t degrade unless they’re put into harsh conditions or something else comes along to chew them up. Finding active enzymes in a cell is just like finding clean platinum in an old car’s catalytic converter: you know that the catalyst still *could* function, but that itself is not proof that the car itself will still run.
    (I said they “generally” remain stable because there are at least a few that end up chopping themselves up with impressive efficiency. Fascinating, but too tangental to get into here!)

    Ian Holmes (#100) gave several references to mRNAs staying intact in the cell. Again, this isn’t terribly surprising. mRNA is roughly similar in structure to DNA; if nothing is actually working to break it down, it’ll happily it around indefinitely. Normally our environment has a lot of things in it that degrade RNA (for example our blood, sweat and tears contain anti-RNA enzymes, presumably as a defence against RNA-based viruses). So the surprise in those papers is that none of the cell’s enzymes that would normally destroy them are functional any more, or that the RNA in bound to something that’s protecting it by some other means. But just because they’re still present and mostly intact doesn’t mean that they’re being used for anything, or even that the cell is alive.

    The brain spends an enormous amount of energy and oxygen on housekeeping: synthesising neurotransmitters, pumping ions in and out of neurons to set up electrical potentials, etc. Without all of this work constantly ongoing, the patterns of electrical impulses that make up the mind are simply impossible.

    Getting a few live cells out of a recently deceased brain is interesting and possibly very useful, but the presence of a few survivors a short time after death doesn’t mean that the whole system is intact. All the feedback loops, clock circuits etc. that seem to be the most fundamental functions of the mind have become undetectable, and the cells enacting them mostly dead.

    Getting back to the idea of conciousness after decapitation. New Scientis recently ran an article entitled “Death Special: How Does it Feel to Die?” (free access, I think). They have a section on decapitation on the second page. In it they mention a study claiming that when blood stops flowing to a rat’s brain, all of the oxygen in the brain is used up in 2.7 seconds. After that, I’d expect cells to go into hypoxic shock and begin dying at various rates, dpending on the cell. I haven’t done the experiment, but at a guess I’d give the hardiest cells a couple of hours before they’re completely unrecoverable. The equivalent time for humans is calculated at 7 seconds, very soon after which I’d expect them to pass out, if the blow from the guillotine hadn’t knocked them out already.

    So, yeah, if people aren’t knocked out by the sudden blow to the back of the neck and don’t faint from blood pressure loss, I’d believe 7-10 seconds of confused, panicky conciousness.

    Foetusnail (#105)
    For what it’s worth, I like the point/counterpoint style of debate when used online. That way I find it easier to spot when someone is glossing over or forgetting a point, and just a good way to track exactly what someone’s replying to in a relatively long, multi-way thread like this.

  73. Dr. Revolutionary, you clearly have a lot to say, and I give you points for coming back and getting into the argument, but you’re still not clear on the part where you avoid becoming unduly personal and adversarial.

    It’s easy to keep track of the difference between Takuan and Takeshi if you just remember that Takeshi is the hominid.

  74. Takuan @101: you got it!

    Oh yeah, and don’t forget David Marusek’s “Counting Heads” which (in a sense) is *all* about this (sorta).

  75. Bugs @107: I think you’re slightly missing the point about the mRNA studies in postmortem brain tissues. My (limited) understanding of those experiments is that they are a good way to measure the half-life of brain mRNA in controlled conditions. The enzymes that degrade RNA *are* present in those cells, but new mRNA is not being actively transcribed. So you get exponential decay (stochastic exponential decay, in the limit of small numbers of molecules). This can be quantified e.g. using microarray studies. Then again, mRNA seems to have a pretty short half-life in vitro too, so perhaps you’re right; I don’t really know.

    I do think it’s a bit dubious to say that “just because [the mRNAs] are still present and mostly intact doesn’t mean that they’re being used for anything”. I would expect that if mRNAs are present, they will be translated, i.e. they *will* be used. I do agree that this sort of molecular-level activity does not (necessarily) say much about cellular-level activity; it was intended as a piece of evidence fuelling the general speculation that the cells will probably keep ticking over for a while.

    I actually did a quick pubmed search for postmortem brain electrical activity, but couldn’t find much. Do you have a reference for your assertion that “all the feedback loops, clock circuits… have become undetectable” ? I agree that this would seem to be a stronger indicator of postmortem brain (dys)function (if not “consciousness” per se… whatever that is).

  76. one slight snag with all this, has anybody thought of where the air came from to operate his vocal cords, given that he was severed from his lungs, which are actually the mechanisms required to force air through the vocal cords in order to speak?

  77. @ Ian (113)
    Yes, I think I misconstrued your point. I was still thinking in terms of the statement (not yours) upthread that cellular activity is still detectable days/weeks after death. So my counterpoint was intended to be that the presence of mRNA in cells doesn’t necessarily mean that the cells are alive, or that the mRNAs are being used for anything at that moment.

    Certainly if mRNAs are hanging around in a living* cell then you’d expect some activity, give or take some fancy translational regulation. In an oxygen-deprived cell I’d expect it to keep going until the cell’s store of ATP runs out.** If the cells can get anaerobic respiration*** going on, I’d think this period would be measured in minutes at most. In cells like neurons where ion pumps are running full blast and new neurotransmitters are being synthesised almost constantly, I’d think this would be much, much quicker. Come to think of it, neurons don’t have much in the way of mitochondria and self-sufficiency, they rely on the glial cells wrapped around them to supply energy and some metabolites. Any activity we see is likely to be residual activity in the glial cells, rather than the neurons themselves. So my (uninformed) hypothesis is to go back to saying that death of the neurons is pretty quick, regardless of whether you can find intact mRNA in the brain.

    I’m still not sure whether I’m actually replying to the point you intended to make. Mea culpa, this is quite embarrassing.

    As for the “feedback loops… becoming undetectable” yes, although I hadn’t realised how poor the detection is.

    This paper is interesting, if a bit to clinical for me. It talks about a failure to detect electrical activity in the brainstem by EEG being a part of the official definition of “brain death” or “brain stem death” (the UK version). Slightly unsettlingly, if you read the bit entitled “Ancilliary testing” it says

    EEG examination is limited by an inability to detect activity in deep brain structures and electrical interference in the intensive care environment when high gain examinations are performed. This testing may also be adversely affected by conditions such as hypothermia and pharmacotherapeutic agents used in the management of brain injured patients.

    …so the tests are commonly performed, but are not as sensitive as I thought when I wrote my post above.**** When the brainstem is gone the body can no longer sustain breathing, heart rate etc. A few clinical and lay websites I’ve just skimmed state that conciousness is completey irrecoverable when this much damage happens, but I’m not enough of a neurobiologist to find an academic paper. Have the simplistic but nicely written NHS page on brain stem death instead.

    Oh, and for all the DIYers reading: How to diagnose brain death (mostly) without specialist equipment. Someone should make an instructable!

    Mods: I fear that the currents of my geekiness are rapidly drawing me away from the fair shores of the actual topic. I’ll rein it in if you like, I just love this stuff and think BBers are probably bright and geeky enough to share it with.

    Oh cripes, a board post with a glossary. I’m so sorry:
    * “living” gets somewhat woolly as a definition when you get down to the molecular level. The process we’re talking about –making new proteins from mRNA templates– can be done in a test tube using the contents of dead cells and a few extra ingredients to simulate the cellular environment. But generally you’d need a living cell to provide those extra ingredients, one of which is ATP.

    **ATP = Adenosine Triphosphate. Sugars and oxygen are reacted together via a wonderfully efficient (and rather elegant) system of enzymes, releasing high-energy electrons which are used to power proton (hydrogen ion) pumps. These pumps fill a smallish chamber (a part of the mitochondria) with hydrogen ions, which then start to leak out through special channels in the membrane. While passing through these channels, the ions power another mechanism that makes a high-energy chemical called ATP. Then basically everything in the cell that needs energy to run (including the “translation” of mRNA into proteins) gets energy by breaking down ATP. Think of ATP as the AA battery of the molecular world. I mentioned that oxygen is used, but there is a relatively very inefficient way to get ATP without it called anaerobic respiration:

    ***Aargh, this feels too much like undegrad homework. Let’s just say that it’s an inefficient way to break down glucose without oxygen that ends up with much less ATP. It’s wasteful and churns out lactic acid, which is somewhat toxic.

    On a related note, fuck clockpunk: I love it but the inside of your cells is much more intricate, elegant and just plain cooler than anything I expect we’ll manage to build for centuries.

    ****EEG and ECG machines measure tiny changes in the electrical fields given off by the brain and heart, respectively. As they’re designed to detect really tiny electrical fields, they’re the main machines in a hospital that, yes, your mobile phone _can_ interfere with if you bring them too close.

  78. don’t you dare stop, Bugs. A discussion based on observed and recorded facts is worth a lot more than passionate opinions.

    Has anyone been recorded as coming back from “brain death”? And what story?

  79. Takuan @116, neurology is full of singular cases and way-off-the-bell-curve outcomes. That said, I’m not sure anyone has come back after modern testing methods have diagnosed (for instance) no metabolic activity upstream of the brain stem.

  80. @ FoetusNail:

    “I comment only to say, I find posts that copy, paste, and respond to comments line by tedious line, well tedious. Posts of this type are wholly unnecessary and wasteful of time, both yours and ours.”

    Sorry if it offends you. It is a way for me to stay on point, and I disagree that most people will go back and re-read for context. Inasmuch, I also disagree that it is “wholly unnecessary and wasteful of time.” That sounds like a pretty serious indictment. But it’s a very slight note of disagreement we have. You can always ignore posts by me, I believe.

    @ mdh

    “The crux of the Dr’s complaint seems to be this: Citation Please.”

    First of all, I don’t believe that “dv revolutionary” is a doctor at all. Judging by his handle, I gather that he’s a digital video enthusiast. Moreover, if he’s going to demand citations, he should provide some of his own. Whatever the crux of his argument, his delivery was abysmal.

    Again, if he had provided citations of his own, I may have been inclined to do so myself. And frankly, if he’d asked for citations to support specific claims I’d made it would be far easier to meet his demands. Not that I would have. I have sacrificed well enough of my time as it is, and have provided several reading suggestions. My time is valuable. To me, and quite possibly a few others.

    @ Bugs:

    “I’m happy to accept all of this, but if these are typical examples of the ‘cellular activity’ you were referring to, they’re pretty much meaningless in terms of conciousness.”

    I defer to this sound reasoning. However, you seem to be misinterpreting what I said, which is perfectly understandable given the fact that I was being ambiguous for the sake of it.

    What I said was, “I don’t think it’s completely out of the realm of believability that the brain does continue to ‘think’ after death.” Notice that I put the word “think” in quotes, and made sure to use a statement like “completely outside the realm of believability” as a roundabout way of suggesting that it is not at all probable. I was doing so precisely to discourage people from believing that what I meant was that brain function continued normally following death.

    I also said, “if you think that’s frightening, low-level activity usually persists in mammalian brains for months, and in some cases years, after death.” That statement is true, and I provided several citations as evidential corroboration, but it is wholly distinct from my other statement. No mention of consciousness, but certainly one was implied, in a Premature Burial kind of way.

    Still, I used the term “low-level,” which implies a lack of consciousness. I was merely being ghoulish. Naturally, as someone who gives a damn about the workings of the human brain, I don’t really believe that normal functionality can persist for years after death. Duh. But again, as infinitesimal a possibility as it is, I recognize that it is nevertheless a possibility that some kind of “cogitation” or subconscious activity might be at play, just beneath the surface. Resultantly, as an atheist, I am being cremated.

    And thank you for your input. I am glad to know that a molecular biologist has joined the ranks of professionals who believe that post-decapitation consciousness is possible.

  81. @Takeshi
    However, you seem to be misinterpreting what I said…
    I seem to be doing a lot of that today :D.

    Yes, I thought you were attaching a lot more importance to those “low level activities” and inverted-comma “thoughts” than you actually were, as I didn’t perceive the distinction you were drawing between them. You said many true things and I assumed they represented a common thread of thought. Oh well, it gave me an excuse to get all geeky while dinner was cooking so thanks for that!

    My current opinion on the post-decapitation thing is “maybe”. I’d expect the sudden blow to the back of the neck and the sudden drop in blood pressure to trigger a faint, but I’m not certain of that. My background in anatomy is pretty poor, so I just don’t have any data to judge the chances of occasional people not passing out almost instantly. As Teresa said a few posts up, there are always exceptions and edge cases in medicine. If by some chance a person doesn’t faint I see no reason why they couldn’t stay concious for the 7-10 seconds it takes them for the brain to run out of oxygen. FWIW, I’ve passed out from lack of oxygen before (over-enthusiastic Judo opponent) and it wasn’t all that bad: some fuzzy-headedness for a few seconds then I woke up a subjective instant later (less than 5 seconds, I was told) with a worried-looking sensei standing over me. I imagine the neck wound would sting a bit, though.

    Takuan @116
    I don’t have the background, but the stuff I’ve read this afternoon all said “no”. You’ll have heard all the stories about feelings of floating upwards toward the light; I’ve heard from a few places that one can produce the same sensations by depriving the brain of blood pressure and oxygen. These were all pop science articles though, I’ve never read a peer-reviewed source.

    That said, there is a cool experiment going on (or just finished?) in a hospital here in the UK. Staff have stuck big, primary-coloured shapes all around the hospital where they can’t be seen from the ground. Whenever someone reports floating over the bed and looking down at the scene the doctors plan to ask, for example, whether there’s a square or a triangle on top of the wardrobe, or what colour it is. I’m pretty sure I can guess what the result will be, but it’s a cheap study to run and I love the fact that they’re testing it.

    As a caveat, all this is getting deep into areas that I don’t really know much about. You shouldn’t trust my opinion on this as a scientist any more than you should trust a fridge repairman’s perspective on how to soup up a porsche. The knowledge is based on similar principles and background, but there’s a lot of fine detail missing ;).

  82. I can offer one observation in each direction.

    Toward the “retained consciousness” theory: the ends of traumatically severed blood vessels can go into spasm, thus possibly retaining some of the extant blood supply in the brain.

    Against the theory: Terri Schiavo. Many of us saw the footage of her randomly grimacing, glancing in one direction or another, and doing what might be interpreted as mouthing words. If you really wanted to believe she was still conscious, you could take these motions as evidence of conscious volition.

    Trouble is, those motions were going on long after she’d suffered massive and irreversible brain damage. The tissue wasn’t just oxygen-starved; it was gone. Terri Schiavo could not have been conscious. Nevertheless, her face moved.

    I’ll compare the accounts of Dr. Beaurieux and others to that very elegant study that Bugs mentioned, where patients reporting out of body experiences get asked what shapes and colors were on top of the furniture. It’s one thing to observe that decapitated heads appear to grimace, mouth words, blink, et cetera. It’s another to arrange for heads to make a specific prearranged signal, and then have them make that signal.

  83. @ Bugs:

    Thanks for your input, very much. The way I see it: nobody can really have a definitive answer, of course. Your opinion is worth more to me than most. And as I mentioned, I was intentionally obfuscating to heighten fears of such ghastly possibilities while simultaneously cautioning against too passionate a belief in either direction. When writing, I usually just try to entertain myself to keep from becoming so overwhelmed by the deep inadequacies of our language.

    One other thing, also. Not directed at you, but some people seem to think that one must provide citations to have an opinion. What is missing from this estimation is the very simple understanding that people can – and most often do – form opinions of their own based on what they’ve learned. One has no obligation to provide citations for simple facts (i.e., that some cellular activity continues after death, etc.). People make up their own minds, and I have never asked that anyone believe anything I say. Nor have I pleaded, longed for, or expected it.

    I don’t need to provide citations any more than anyone else here who hasn’t. (Although I did, in spite of popular misconception, provide a few.) It is no concern to me whether any of you take my opinion to heart, particularly when my opinion is consistent with established fact. It is only my aim to further understand, for myself, the essentials of what I consider important. To me, and no one else.

    If mdh thinks I should provide citations to support an opinion, he should provide a citation indicating that it is essential for me to do so, while everyone else gets a pass. If someone says something I question, I don’t whimper about it endlessly. I instead attempt to seek out information, on my own time, to either support or refute it. After all, if what I say is true, and you refuse to investigate it for yourself, who is better informed? If you deny the certitude of my words simply because I don’t provide citations, or because my citations don’t meet your expectations, or because you can’t acknowledge the possibility that you may be in the wrong, how are you being a critical thinker?

    Online arguments can be edifying, but ultimately nobody owes anyone else a damned thing. Th snr sm f y nttlmnt-jnks rlz ths, th bttr.

  84. Takeshi – nobody owes anyone else a damned thing and the sooner some of you entitlement-junkies realize this, the better. You really don’t understand this place.

  85. In Saudi Arabia they still behead (with a sword) a large number of people every year – about 153 in 2007.

    The executioners have learned to be very careful about how they clear up the mess, having been BITTEN by the severed head if they picked it up too soon or put their fingers in the wrong place.

    Wouldn’t you if you could?

  86. Takeshi, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. No one’s entitled to their own truth. All other things being equal, in a conversation that has more than one person in it, an argument that’s backed by ascertainable external fact will trump an argument that doesn’t.

  87. THN:

    I’m not sure anyone has come back after modern testing methods have diagnosed (for instance) no metabolic activity upstream of the brain stem.

    There are plenty of (questionable) reports this.

    Questionable but Common Example

    However, it’s unclear how thoroughly brain activity was really measured. There’s no physiological reason why a zero activity brain couldn’t be reawakened, so to speak, provided the event that stopped the activity didn’t produce irrevocable damage. Much of the damage actually occurs when oxygen-starved cells are re-perfused, which kicks off aptosis (i.e., programmed cell death) and which can also bring about swelling-induced damage. This is why therapeutic hypothermia is now being used as an adjunct treatment, sometimes lasting several days.



  88. Takeshi – It’s not you against us, man. If we’re asking tough questions, it’s either because we want to know more, or you’re not explaining it as clearly as you think you are.

    Now – you made several rather astonishing claims about a Russian doctor and his experiments, and offered very very very little to back it up. You can get defensive, or you can make your arguments more convincing.

    Does it matter if Dr R ACTUALLY has a doctorate? Does it matter if I do? Don’t let us waste your time, but please don’t waste ours by telling us we unwashed will just have to take your word for it.

  89. @8

    I believe the Mary Roach book where she uses the same study in the BB post is in STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. She also talks about head transplants.

  90. @ Teresa Nielsen Hayden:

    I never said that I was entitled to my own truth, but if I provide the truth, and others deny it, it is still the truth. A lack of citations does not change that. And as I mentioned, for me this isn’t an argument. I’m merely passing the time, and giving an opinion.

    “… an argument that’s backed by ascertainable external fact will trump an argument that doesn’t.”

    True. And something that is “backed by ascertainable, external fact” doesn’t need to be cited. Or, to put it another way, citations aren’t needed for an opinion to be “backed by ascertainable, external fact.” It either is, or it isn’t. Again, I gave citations. Post-mortem cellular activity does, in fact, occur. Moreover, that is a simple fact that (in my opinion) does not require any kind of citation to be accepted. External references aren’t needed for that statement to be true, any more than they’d be needed to support a conclusion that humans need air and water to survive.

    If my goal was “winning,” then I might be concerned about giving in to the demands of other readers who’ve provided less citations than I have. Simple as that.

  91. @ mdh:

    “Now – you made several rather astonishing claims about a Russian doctor and his experiments…”

    OK, first of all, I provided information about an renowned American doctor, and I gave a link to his Wikipedia entry. Clearly you didn’t even follow that link, or else you would’ve known that. I can further surmise that you didn’t read my post concerning the doctor very carefully, comparing where necessary to his Wikipedia article, or else you wouldn’t be calling my claims “astonishing” and confusing him for a Russian doctor. Would further citations be of any use?

    “Does it matter if Dr R ACTUALLY has a doctorate?”

    I’m going to point this out once more, since you seem to be a little lost. “Dr R,” as you call him, uses the handle “Dv Revolutionary,” which would mean a lot of things. He never claimed to be a doctor, and yet Teresa and you both refer to him as a doctor. He doesn’t writedoes matter, when someone says, “Hey, the DOCTOR was only sayin’… ” in an effort to diminish, derail, or in any other way discredit my point.

    “Don’t let us waste your time, but please don’t waste ours by telling us we unwashed will just have to take your word for it.”

    If you believe that by reading my posts, your time is wasted, then it is you who is wasting your own time. By the simple reasoning that you did not bother to follow links I have provided, I would say that any further citations would be wasted on you similarly. Is that really such a stretch?

    You call that claims that I have made about Dr. White “astonishing”? This is a doctor who performed head transplants in the 1970s. He’s pretty well-known, actually. So, in brief, if I needed to provide citations to prove that he exists, and that he has accomplished what I said he did, I have done so by providing a link to his Wikipedia entry. Astonishing!

  92. Whoops. Formatting difficulties. I meant to say that he doesn’t write like a doctor, and yeah… whether he is a doctor does matter.

  93. Antinous 122: You know, if you don’t hang people skillfully, you can accidentally rip their heads off.

    So you don’t rip their heads off if they’re, shall we say, well hung?

    I refuse to apologize and I seek no forgiveness.

  94. Having studied the medical reports on more than two dozen guillotinings, and read the reports from six different experiments involving freshly guillotined heads (my favorite: when the doctor attached the severed head to the arteries of a living dog to ‘breathe’ life into it) I am convinced there is a window of 18 to 24 seconds of consciousness. What is interesting about the Languille experiments is 1) the doctor was at the foot of the guillotine when the head fell; and 2) the head landed on the stump of the neck, meaning the flow of blood was somewhat staunched which allowed for an extra few seconds of interlocution.

    It should be added that the whole phenomena began with the guillotining of Charlotte Corday. The executioner held her severed head up to the crowd and brusquely slapped her on one cheek. According to eye witnesses, both cheeks immediately reddened, indicating Corday was humiliated at being thus slapped, and, clearly, was aware of being slapped. From that point on, the medical investigation into the consciousness of a severed head began …

    (If you’re wondering, I wrote a book on the last man guillotined in France, hence the macabre expertise … )

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