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Just a head – Book review

June 24, 2011

I tend to consume my books in the form of audio. This is easier for me because I have little time in the day to sit down and read and when I do find a quiet minute, my body like clock-work turns off and pulls me to sleep. Audio can be enjoyed while doing mundane tasks, washing dishes, or walking to work providing perfect opportunities to listen to a book or two.

I found various websites that offer free downloads of audio books. A few months back when I was casually browsing one of those times looking for titles to read (listen) I read one title of a book called ‘Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers’ by Mary Roach. A book about dead bodies? I thought to myself. What could you possibly write about in a book on such a macabre subject? The aroused curiosity in me demanded I download the book and see exactly what the book would contain. It didn’t disappoint.

To give you a taste of the chapter names:

BEYOND THE BLACK BOX: When the bodies of the passengers must tell the story of a crash

HOLY CADAVER: The crucifixion experiments

HOW TO KNOW IF YOU’RE DEAD: Beating-heart cadavers, live burial, and the scientific search for the soul

EAT ME: Medicinal cannibalism and the case of the human dumplings

And my favorite

JUST A HEAD: Decapitation, reanimation, and the human head transplant


The chapter titles ‘Just a head’ was the most fascinating to me. The subject of decapitation, head-transplants and human search for a soul are the three themes of the chapter.

The chapter starts with the following quote

“If you really wanted to know for sure that the human soul resides in the

brain, you could cut off a man’s head and ask it. You would have to ask

quickly, for the human brain cut off from its blood supply will slide into

unconsciousness after ten or twelve seconds. You would, further, have to

instruct the man to answer with blinks, for, having been divorced from

his lungs, he can pull no air through his larynx and thus can no longer

speak. But it could be done. And if the man seemed more or less the same

individual he was before you cut off his head, perhaps a little less calm,

then you would know that indeed the self is there in the brain.”

In today’s society with high standards of ethics in medical practices such an experiment would be unthinkable and in most cases remains a taboo subject not brought up in polite company.  Yet the author of the book doesn’t restrict herself to our times.

Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin from whom the French execution device derives its name from was lobbying for the use of the guillotine in Paris at the end of the 18th century. He argued that the device provides a more humane and instantaneous death over a noose, and that criminals should thus be decapitated rather than hanged.

Then in  November 9, 1795, a letter was written and published by a German anatomist S. T. Sömmering who argued that the heads that where cut off could still see hear, smell, and think for some time afterwards and thus the guillotine was not humane at all. Another man, Jean-Joseph Sue, the librarian at the Paris School of Medicine attempted to persuade some of his colleagues to undertake an experiment whereby “before the butchery of the victim,” a few of the unfortunate’s friends would arrange a code of eyelid or jaw movements which the head could use after the execution to indicate whether it was “fully conscious of [its] agony.” The medical community saw the idea as ghastly and ridiculous and the experiment was not undertaken.

The idea of testing a decapitated head resurfaced a number of years later when a physiologist named Legallois wrote a 1812 paper arguing that if the personality did indeed reside in the brain you could revive the head by supplying oxygenated blood to it. Legallois lacked the resources or the will power to attempt it himself and the experiment lay dormant for a number of decades.

In 1884 a man by the name of Jean Baptiste Vincent Laborde persvaded the French authorities to supply him with a head so that he could examine the state of their brain and nervous system and put to rest the so called, la terrible legend – whether a head can survive without a body for a period of time. On two different occasions, two different prisoners were supplied to Laborde but each time the journey to his lab lasted over an hour and there was no hope of the experiment yielding any meaningful results.


Finally in 1902 a French physician by the name of Beaurieux appears to have answered the long standing question that puzzled the French people for over a century before. Using Paris’s public scaffold as his lab, he carried out a series of simple observations and experiments on the head of a prisoner named Languille, the instant after the guillotine blade dropped. This is what he wrote:

Here, then, is what I was able to note

immediately after the decapitation: the

eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked

in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about

five or six seconds…[and] ceased. The face

relaxed, the lids half closed on the

eyeballs,…exactly as in the dying whom we have

occasion to see every day in the exercise of

our profession….It was then that I called in a

strong, sharp voice, “Languille!” I then saw

the eyelids slowly lift up, without any

spasmodic contraction…such as happens in

everyday life, with people awakened or torn

from their thoughts. Next Languille’s eyes

very definitely fixed themselves on mine and

the pupils focused themselves. I was not,

then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look

without any expression that can be observed

any day in dying people to whom one speaks. I

was dealing with undeniably living eyes which

were looking at me.

After several seconds, the eyelids closed

again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on

the same appearance as it had had before I

called out. It was at that point that I called

out again, and, once more, without any spasm,

slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably

living eyes fixed themselves on mine with

perhaps even more penetration than the first

time….I attempted the effect of a third call;

there was no further movement—and the eyes

took on the glazed look which they have in the


There you have it people a very freaky account of heads without bodies and experiments to see whether they would respond in the moments following the chop of a guillotine.

Over all I learns a lot of interesting facts in this book and I rate it highly.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Apo permalink
    July 5, 2011 11:18 pm

    That was disturbingly interesting…

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