Capital punishment is slowly becoming a thing of the past in the Western world. America is one of the few Western powers where the practice is still going strong, although some might argue not nearly strong enough. For many, our emphasis on a humane death for the most inhumane among us rankles, Constitutional protections against “cruel and unusual punishment” notwithstanding. The notion of trying to find a more humane method of execution than, say, Vlad the Impaler’s,is not a new idea. With that goal in mind, the French invented the guillotine, a machine specifically designed to deliver swift death by decapitation.
However, strange reports began to circulate that called into question just how humane this “enlightened” form of execution was. Witnesses claimed that they saw eyes moving on decapitated heads. Some even claimed to see the heads trying to speak. These gruesome stories led to the question: “Can a human ‘survive’ their own decapitation, and if so for how long?”
Naturally, we know a bit more about this topic than our ancestors did two hundred years ago, what with our advances in the understanding of human physiology. The answer to the first question is most assuredly “yes”. A woman in Denver survived what is known in medical circles as an “internal decapitation” after a horrific car crash left her skull separated from her body. Her head was still attached by skin, veins, arteries, tendons, and ligaments, and her spinal cord was also intact. The spine itself had snapped off from the skull. Fortunately, surgeons were able to save her life.
But what about a “textbook” decapitation, where the head is completely removed from the body? The answer is still a yes. In an experiment that would do Frankenstein proud, back in the sixties a group of scientists transplanted the head of one monkey onto the body of another. The newly formed “Franken-monkey” could see, smell, hear, and even take a chunk out of researcher’s hands if they were unwary. Nobody then or now could repair the damage to the monkey’s spinal cord, so the monkey was paraplegic. As was a dog in China who also received a head transplant more recently. As a quick aside, this isn’t merely mad science–there could be practical medical benefits for humans who find their heads attached to their body since now we have practical experience in keeping heads alive, or paraplegics who find their bodies riddled with cancer.
So, we now know that a victim of decapitation can survive their injury, but barring a mad scientist being around to stitch their head to another person’s body, how long could they survive? According to this article, about thirteen seconds depending on build, health, and other factors. What kills you when you’re decapitated isn’t the removal of the head. As we have seen, if you could find a body to stick your severed head on you could theoretically survive as a paraplegic. No, what kills is that the brain’s blood supply is cut off, removing the brain’s oxygen supply among other things. So long as the oxygen remains, brain cells can still fire. As for whether the decapitated head could remain conscious, it seems likely it would at least for part of the thirteen seconds.
Kinda makes you think the guillotine wasn’t as humane as the French thought it was, right? Could be part of why they outlawed capital punishment in 1981.