I came across an urban legend that says your brain continues to work, even after you have been decapitated. I thought exploring that legend was worth pursuing.

There certainly is finality to losing your head! Or is there? Whether is it done through beheading, where the head is accidentally detached from the body, or through decapitation (intentional severing of the head), – like the use of the guillotine during the French Revolution or still in use by certain governments or terrorists, the separation of the head from the body appears to be final. The question is, if you lose your head do you immediately lose all your capacities – even for a few seconds?

This may sound gruesome, but it brings up some interesting questions. We often hear that a chicken continues to walk around long after their heads have been cut off. Is this an urban legend?

It is possible for a chicken to move around after beheading, but only for a limited time – from a few seconds to several days). “A moving chicken is not really alive, nor really headless. A completely beheaded chicken moves around because the muscles in the body are moved by random impulses from the nerves, which typically don’t last very long.” The University of George Department of Poultry Science conducted lengthy studies on decapitated boiler hens. They found that most headless birds lasted only a few seconds, and more extreme cases bleeding and muscle activity went on for up to 90 seconds.

There actually was a verified case (confirmed by the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, 1942) where a chicken lived for 18 months after his owner tried to chop off his head for dinner. Mike the Miracle Chicken’s (as he came to be known) owner tried to cut off the head of the bird, but missed the jugular vein and left part of one ear and most of his brain stem intact. Mike and his owners toured the country for the next 18 months as a sideshow act. The fact is, Mike was only partially decapitated, and what was left was enough to keep him going.

In history, as most of us know, decapitation was an accepted form of execution for criminals. It was assumed to be the quickest and most humane way to execute, but was it?

On July 17, 1793, a woman named Charlotte Corday was executed by guillotine in France for the assassination of a well-liked radical journalist, Jean-Paul Marat. The crowd was eager to see Corday pay for her crime. Once the guillotine blade severed Corday’s head it fell and one of the executioner’s assistants picked it up and slapped its cheek. Witnesses said Corday’s eyes turned to look at the man, and the expression on her face changed to indignation. After that incident, “people executed by guillotine during the Revolution were asked to blink afterward, and witnesses claim that the blinking occurred for up to 30 seconds.”

French physician Dr. Gabriel Beaurieux witnessed the beheading of a man named Languille in 1905. Beaurieux wrote that immediately afterward, “the eyelids and lips … worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds.” Dr. Beaurieux called out his name and said that Languille’s eyelids “slowly lifted up, without any spasmodic contraction” and that “his pupils focused themselves”. This occurred again for a second time, but the third time Beaurieux spoke, there was no response.

Most modern scientists believe these were simply reflexive twitching of muscles, rather than conscious, deliberate movement. Cut off from the heart (and therefore, from oxygen), the brain immediately goes into a coma and begins to die. According to and article in New Scientist by Dr. Harold Hillman, consciousness is “probably lost within 2-3 seconds, due to a rapid fall of intracranial perfusion of blood”. Hillman also goes on to point out that the guillotine was anything but humane. He states that “death occurs due to separation of the brain and spinal cord, after transection of the surrounding tissues. This must cause acute and possibly severe pain.”

So while it’s not entirely impossible for someone to still be conscious after being decapitated, it’s not likely unless they were not totally beheaded. Once the brain is separated from the body the nerves and muscles may still twitch and contract, but the body is dead.

This article was shared by two-time USA Memory Champion, memory training expert and memory keynote, Ron White.


Discovery, Fit & Health – Your Brain Stays Active After You Get Decapitated: http://health.howstuffworks.com/human-body/systems/nervous-system/10-brain-myths6.htm

Wikipedia – Decapitation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decapitation; Mike the Headless Chicken: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_the_Headless_Chicken

Wikki Answers, Answers.com – Is it possible for chickens to live without a head?: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Is_it_possible_for_a_chicken_to_live_without_a_head#ixzz1WzM6YxOE

­Kershaw, Alister. “A History of the Guillotine.” New York : Barnes & Noble, 199

Hillman, Harold “An unnatural way to die.” New Scientist, October 27, 1983, pg 276-278