Imagine you find yourself strapped to the guillotine, with only a few seconds before the blade comes swishing down,  neatly and completely removing your head from your body. How long would you stay alive before the lights fully went out? Would you be able to look up from the basket that your head fell into, and say goodbye to your dismembered corpse resting there above you?

The brain is the body’s central command; the question is, would it continue to function after it has been severed from the body. Experiments have taken place since the French revolution to modern day Netherlands to try to figure out what kind of consciousness, if any, we experience after having our heads lopped off. That’s what we’ll attempt to find out today, in this episode of the Infographics Show – How long do you remain conscious if your head is chopped off.   

The short answer is, not long! A few seconds is perhaps all you’d have. Blood pressure in the head would suddenly drop, followed by a loss of consciousness that, accompanied by the shock and the pain of just having your noodle disembodied, would also probably turn the lights out in a matter of seconds. Some say about 15 seconds is all you get while the brain uses up what little oxygen remains. Some say you’d stay alive just long enough, that if you were guillotined, you’d feel your head hit the basket.

But does that mean you’d be able to use your eyes to observe the scene of the executioner and the crowds from the discomfort of your basket? Well, on that theme, there’s the wonderful account of a French chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier. This story may be one of urban legend, with some supporting it and others doubting that it actually happened. For the sake of this episode, we present the story as reported in various articles, and we’ll let you, the viewers, make up your own minds. Following the French revolution, the chemist was sentenced to the guillotine for being overly wealthy and of noble standing.

Monsieur de Lavoisier was naturally curious as to how long he would remain conscious after the chop, and he dreamt up an experiment of sorts to put this to the test. With a friend planted in front of the guillotine, Monsieur de Lavoisier promised to blink as many times as humanly possible after his head was cut off. And that he did, according to urban legend. There were some reports that stated he blinked for up to 30 seconds after the chop.

This, if true, is one of the most primitive and earliest studies that suggest the brain does continue to work even though it is no longer attached to the rest of the body. Strangely enough, Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier was, as the story goes, pardoned a year later, which wasn’t much good to him, as he was, of course, already dead. But perhaps his most noted medical work was that simple decapitation experiment. Regardless of the veracity of the blinking story, he will forever be known as a brilliant chemist, and a great mind.   

Now, of course the Frenchman’s alleged blinking could have simply been a nerve reflex. When a large nerve or bundle of nerves is abruptly severed, there follows a wave of depolarization of nerve fibers that acts similar to an electric shock wave. The nerve blast contains no information and probably not much pain. If we think about what happens to a chicken or a frog when its head is removed, there is a sudden blast of nervous activity that makes the animal appear animated, and perhaps that is what happens with the head after it is detached from the body of a human being.

On the other hand, researchers are discovering that neurons, or brain cells, are active even after their blood supply is suddenly withdrawn. Dutch scientists have measured the brain activity in mice after decapitating them in mini mice-sized guillotines. The researchers observed a quick flash of activity in the brain immediately after the chop, and then about a minute later they observed another ripple of activity.

A January 2008 paper published by neuroscientist Anton Coenen and colleagues at the Radboud University in Holland, described this second wave of electrical activity as ‘the wave of death,’ as it was thought to be the ultimate border between life and death. It was also used as proof that the brain is still active for up to a minute after it had been suddenly sliced from the body.

This discovery was countered by Michel van Putten of the University of Twente who told Science News that the ‘wave of death’ theory is completely speculative. Putten’s own nerve cell research states that ‘after an abrupt halt of energy and oxygen supply, the channels stop functioning normally, causing a buildup of positive charge outside the cell. This buildup prompts a big discharge of electrical activity about 30 or 40 seconds after starting the simulation.” So, basically, the ‘the wave of death’ theory may not prove the brain is active after all.

If your head drops from the guillotine, since your eyes are still connected to your brain, would you be able to see what’s happening above you? Or would you have an out-of-body experience? Nobody alive really seems to know. However if neurons can’t function normally without blood supply, then those signals might not make it from your eyes to your brain. With doctors nowadays considering Frankenstein-type operations, such as head transplants, we will surely be able to answer this question with more authority in the foreseeable future.   

So what do you think? Do you remain conscious after losing your head? Or is it lights out as soon as the head is severed? Let us know your thoughts in the comments! Also, be sure to watch our other video called The Worst Punishments in the history of Mankind. Thanks for watching, and as always, don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. See you next time!

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