Can a brain live for a minute after decapitation?

Since I was a kid, I've been fascinated by 19th century guillotine anecdotes about severed heads winking, attempting to speak, or smiling. The "Guillotine" entry in Wikipedia has a section on "Living heads" and The Straight Dope has investigated the topic as well. And now, two new scientific studies also push on the question of whether the brain is still "alive" after decapitation. From Science News (painting by Francisco de Goya):
 Wikipedia Commons 9 9A Francisco De Goya - The French Penalty Almost a minute after a rat’s head is severed from its body, an eerie shudder of activity ripples through the animal’s brain. (Research published in January by Radboud University Nijmegen neuroscientists suggest that this) post-decapitation wave marks the border between life and death. But the phenomenon can be explained by electrical changes that, in some cases, are reversible, researchers (from the University of Twente in Enschede, the Netherlands) report online July 13 in PLoS ONE.

Whether a similar kind of brain wave happens in humans, and if so, whether it is inextricably tied to death could have important implications. An unambiguous marker could help doctors better decide when to diagnose brain death, knowledge that could give clarity to loved ones and boost earlier organ donation.

"'Wave of death' may not be a last gasp"


  1. I’m curious if the conductive nature of the blade matters. (think about the sensation of chomping down on aluminum foil)  Would a ceramic blade yield the same reaction?

  2. My reaction has always been – why wouldn’t the brain be alive? It’s usually not directly damaged by the slice and only gradually ceases to function and eventually dies off due to lack of oxygen. You could be instantly knocked out by the shock and sensory overload, but you certainly don’t die immediately. The duration of the post-decapitation awareness could be anything from seconds to conceivably minutes (some theories state that the halted circulation allows the brain tissue to more fully utilize the oxygen content of the blood, but that is a mere speculation) and would probably considerably vary between subjects, but I am really convinced it is strictly a matter of “how long?” rather then “at all?”

    1. The brain may be alive for a short period, but consciousness is lost within about a second of the spinal cord being severed along with a complete loss of blood pressure as the arteries are also severed. 

  3. Alive or not, it seems like a forceful decapitation would likely put you into shock (both the circulatory and mental kinds) so you’d probably be too dazed and disoriented to fully appreciate the novelty of being a disembodied head before bleeding out.

  4. This is probably one of those situations where “humane” and “aesthetically tasteful” are opposed to one another.

    There is, inevitably, going to be some amount of oxygen and already-generated ATP stored in the tissue of the severed head, and no physical disruption of the high-level brain areas. If you just dropped a big steel block, instead of a big steel blade, you’d get essentially immediate and massive physical disruption of the neural network. Much messier; but far less likely that the brain would remain conscious for any time thereafter.

  5. I seem to remember a program on one of the discovery channels about the French Revolution and a doctor or scientist who was ordered to the guillotine told his assistants to watch his head and he would blink for as long as he could…I think he managed to blink 17 times before not having any more control. Who knows how long it took for his consciousness to die completely.

  6. Why would we expect there to be a single moment that is a “border between life and death?” Death is a process. It seems to be that at what point in that process the organism is technically “dead” is a matter of deciding on arbitrary criteria.

    1. And yet, having watched a few people die, they do go from life to waxy lump of meat rather dramatically.

  7. I was with my Aunt when she passed on.  The family had made the decision to remove life support actually, and while the alarms were turned off, the monitors were on.  Long after she was “dead” there was still a lot of electrical activity being recorded, and it went on for a LONG time. It was beautiful and creepy.

  8. Is there a way to differentiate between cogent thought and a random jumble of reflex action using

  9. Wouldn’t the huge drop in blood pressure and quick decrease in oxygen supply to brain cells mean that you’d almost instantly go into a faint? (for comparison, a choke hold will make you unconscious in about 9 seconds, and in that case blood flow to the brain is only cut by 13%) There’s still brain activity in a person who’s fainted, but for all intents and purposes they are “unconscious”.

  10. I recall reading that during the French Revolution, someone would lift the just-decapitated heads and laugh in their faces.

  11. When I unplug my computers power cord, the transformer still has power stored in it (it’s fitted with an indicator light) for about 45 seconds; why wouldn’t the brain do the same thing, It’s all about electricity isn’t it? We don’t have to be robots to be electrified. 

    Or read Stephens Kings “The Breathing Method”.  

  12. This dumb thread, again!  The loss of sight and hearing would be nearly immediate with the traumatic decrease in blood pressure and hypoxia from O2 (blood flow has stopped) being rapidly metabolized by a brain running in overdrive. Yes, brain cells may well malinger for a while before dying but that wouldn’t sustain consciousness. And what about that two foot thunk into the basket. OUCH!!  Unless you talked Abhorson into letting you wear a helmet you’ve got another insult to “think” about. I’ve had the misfortune to have volunteered for a tilt-table test and if you’ve got orthostatic intolerance or syncope-BANG, lights out in mere seconds, even though your brain is getting a liter or so a minute from your heart frantically putting out 190+ BMP.  But I’ll be happy to hear your arguments if you’d like to conduct an N=1 non-replicable experiment.  Bear in mind you may have some trouble responding to the reviewers’ critiques.

Comments are closed.