Illustration from the beheading of king Louis XVI, 1793
How long can a severed head survive?
In 2011, the Radboud University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands carried out a study on rats and published the results on the authoritative science portal PLOS. The experiments have shown that the brain waves in the small animals decayed exponentially within four seconds after beheading. A second wave, designated the ‘Wave of Death’ by the scientists, was recorded after 50 seconds.
A subsequent study carried out by neurologist Bas-Jan Zandt and published in turn on the portal, claims that the process is not irreversible, opening disturbing scenarios worthy of Dr. Frankenstein.
In the past, experiments have been carried out on human beings as well.
One of the most striking testimonies on the subject is a study performed by Dr. Gabriel Beaurieux. In an attempt to scientifically demonstrate whether a head detached from the human body was able to survive and maintain consciousness, he carried out a much cruder but indeed impressive experiment in 1905.
On the occasion of the execution of a prisoner named Henri Languille, Beaurieux had an agreement with the unlucky man: in the seconds following the beheading, he would call him by his name, and Languille would have to look him in the eyes to confirm that he had heard the call.
The guillotine did its duty. Languille’s head fell on the cut surface of his neck (fortunately for the scholar, who did not even have to touch it), and Beaurieux verified what others had already described before. In the first five/six seconds, the man’s eyelids and lips moved irregularly but rhythmically. Beaurieux waited for these nervous reflexes to cease, and only when his eyelids lowered definitively pronounced the victim’s name in a loud and clear voice: “Languille!”.
At that point, his eyelids slowly reopened. The doctor pointed out several times how this gesture occurred naturally and utterly free of spasms, comparing it to the typical reaction of a person who is awakened from light sleep or distracted by his thoughts in everyday life. The eyes of the condemned man were unequivocally fixed on those of Beaurieux. He also saw the irises contract to focus on his face. In his writings, he pointed out that it was not the empty gaze of a corpse, but the concentrated, alert gaze of a living man.
After a few seconds, Languille’s eyes closed, and Beaurieux immediately repeated the experiment, saying his name out loud again.
The second attempt was successful as well, and this time the pathologist’s testimony speaks of an even more penetrating look than the first. His eyelids dropped slowly for the second time, but not completely.
The third call was unsuccessful, and Beaurieux stated that only then the eyes of the condemned man assumed the typical glassy appearance they have in the deceased.
The whole experience lasted just under thirty seconds.
King Louis XVI suffered a very truculent execution on the guillotine in 1793. Find out all the details and live that experience from his point of view in the novel Alter Ego: My journeys beyond human boundaries.