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Wednesday, May 12, 2004  

Internet: Information on beheading is a mixed bag

Curt Fisher, writing at The Apologist, made me curious about how long a person who is beheaded remains conscious. Of course, the current event that sparked my interest is the decapitation of American civilian Nick Berg in Iraq by terrorists yesterday. It is difficult to imagine a more terrifying way to face death, especially if the executioners eschew medication, as Al Qaeda appears to have.

I found myself wondering: Does the mind know what is happening? How long does the brain continue to process information after the decapitation? Is the pain so overwhelming that any kind of reasoned response to it is impossible?

Fisher approached the matter as a physical and philosophical concern.

Does Beheading Hurt?

On many levels, it's one of life's great unanswerables. Does beheading hurt? Who would know?

On a spiritual level, many would agree, beheading hurts us all. It's designed to. The mere sight of a severed head seals itself into every witness; always we wonder as we tug at our throats: But does it hurt? Is there pain? Does the brain remain aware?

Yes to all. Yes, it hurts very much to have your head cut off, and the longer it takes, the worse it hurts. Once your spinal cord is cut and your head is severed you will continue to experience the full spectrum of pain, without the heavenly numb of shock-absorbing chemicals, which are back there with your body. You can't talk, of course, but you can move your lips and appear to scream, and you can focus and blink your eyes, as proved by dozens of deathhouse deals.

A severed head is conscious, and in some ways hyperconscious. The head knows it's been picked up by the hair and shown to the crowd. The head sees the crowd, hears the crowd, smells the breath of the executioner, thinks happy thoughts, cannot believe how long 40 seconds is, because 40 seconds is how long the average head remains fully aware, if not alive. Forty seconds of indescribable pain and horror.

Wanting more information, I decided to delve deeper. Unfortunately, as is usually the case on the Internet, opinion is much easier to find than facts. Some of the entries I've read are clearly a mixture.

Among the sites claiming to provide information is New Scientist, which Fisher linked to.

Does beheading hurt? And, if so, for how long is the severed head aware of its plight?

Yes, beheading hurts. How much depends on the executioner's skill, or lack of it.

When Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed at Fotheringay Castle in 1587, a clumsy headsman gave her three strokes without quite managing to sever her head. The headsman then had to saw though the skin and gristle with his sheath knife before the job could be regarded as complete. The profound, protracted groan Mary gave when the axe first hit left the horrified witnesses in no doubt that her pain was excruciating.

How long is the interval of consciousness after the head is severed? In France, in the days of the guillotine, some of the condemned were asked to blink their eyes if they were still conscious after the knife fell. Reportedly, their heads blinked for up to 30 seconds after decapitation. How much of this was voluntary and how much due to reflex nerve action is speculation. Most nations with science sophisticated enough to determine this question have long since abandoned decapitation as a legal tool.

However, a commenter dismisses the Mary, Queen of of Scots story as apocryphal.

Steven B. Harris, apparently a blogging doctor, made a contribution.

How long can does the head survive after you've been beheaded?

Consciousness lasts only 10-15 seconds after blood pressure goes to zero. How long the brain "survives" a blood pressure of zero is a matter of philosophy. What do you mean by "survive"? Brain cells don't blow up after 5 minutes, nor (unfortunately) do they issue up little cellular ghosts, shaped like little neurons, but whispy and transparent and with blank eye holes. So how do you tell if a brain cell is not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead? Goooood question.

With fancy drug protocols and machinery, dogs have been resuscitated after as long as 15 minutes of normothermic total ischemia (cardiac arrest), and they are about as sensitive to hypoxia as humans. So the brain lasts at least that long, at normal body temperature. What's the ultimate limit? Hours, maybe? Depends on your technology. Also depends on how much of the stored information you are willing to have lost, and still count the "person" who results, as having "survived."

The Spirit Rambler, Hal Milo, did not provide any convincing new information. But, he has a great quotation from Leo Tolstoy, who witnessed a beheading.

During my stay in Paris, the sight of a public execution revealed to me the weakness of my superstitious belief in progress. When I saw the head divided from the body, and heard the sound with which they fell separately into the box, I understood, not with my reason, but with my whole being, that no theory of the wisdom of all established things, nor of progress, could justify such an act; and that if all the men in the world from the day of creation, by whatever theory, had found this thing necessary, it was not so; it was a bad thing, and that therefore I must judge of what was right and necessary, not by what men said and did, not by progress, but what I felt to be true in my heart.

The On-Line Medical Dictonary doesn't list 'beheading' and dismisses decapitation as obsolete. That seems odd since accidental decapitations still occur in countries where beheading is not a form of capital punishment.

The other entries I read about beheading during the hour I allotted were of equally mixed provenance. I came away from the endeavor feeling frustrated.

What's the art?

It is a picture of a guillotine. The basket at the bottom was used to collect the heads.

11:45 PM