Death by guillotine vs. electrocution or injection

Your severed mind is taking things far too literally

There are about seven seconds of metabolism following decapitation.
  • There are about seven seconds of metabolism following decapitation.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Matt: If someone is executed by guillotine, would he retain consciousness for a short time after the blade fell? Would he see the basket rushing toward his face? Would he have a hell of a neck-ache for a few seconds? A guy at work says the executioner used to hold the head up so it could see its body on the ground. Just wondering. — Bob Chambers, Rancho Bernardo

Hoping for true-life anecdotes of screaming heads plummeting into the executioner’s tub? Of wild laughter from some murderer’s harvested dome? Sorry, mate. No such luck. Of course, that doesn’t mean your friend’s not right, ’cause he is right. About the consciousness thing, anyway.

If you’re looking for something spicy to read some night, huddled under the covers with a flashlight, I suggest a 1993 article from the British Journal of Perception titled “The possible pain experienced during execution by different methods.” The author is Harold Hillman, director of a neurobiology lab in England and apparently the world’s expert on the subject. He’s perused the scientific literature and assembled his take on what happens and how it feels, in re: electrocution, hanging, gassing, shooting, lethal injection, and decapitation.

In this latter category, Doc reports on eye movements observed in guillotined rats and the eye responses measured in sheep and dogs that have had their carotid arteries cut. (If nothing else, the article probably did wonders for PETA membership that year.) As for us human beans, Hillman reports, two researchers have calculated that the average cranium has enough blood to supply the brain with oxygen and glucose for about seven seconds of metabolism following decapitation. One other physician, a forensic pathologist not cited by Hillman, estimates our hang time at an amazing 13 seconds. If so, that might give our hypothetical severed head a chance not only to see its own body but to say a few last words.

In case you’re wondering how Hillman rates the various methods of dispatch, he considers electrocution second only to stoning in the agony category. Lethal injection is the best of a bad lot. Stoning and decapitation are still legal methods of execution in a few countries around the world.

February 15 update

Matthew Alice: You said toward the end of your response to the “conscious guillotined head” question a few weeks ago that the head might have a chance not only to see its own body, but to say a few last words. I’m a little surprised at you on this one. It’s a little thing, sure, but still, I believe it’s slipped by you. With lungs and windpipe no longer attached, I think our severed head would be quite speechless. — Steve Terry, [email protected]

Dear Matthew Alice: How may a decapitated body see, or its severed head speak, one without eyes, the other without lungs? — Anonymous, San Diego

To Steve: With sense of humor no longer attached, your severed mind is taking things far too literally. To Anonymous: Don’t believe seeing has much to do with any body parts except eyes and brain. With both intact in our severed head, some form of “seeing” can take place. But about the talking heads — like Steve, you are too literally correct. A severed head, even one conscious for 13 seconds, wouldn’t have much to say. Need I add, my original comment was JUST A JOKE? Yes, I need to add that.

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