Is The Guillotine Painful?

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Imagine a giant blade swiftly severing your head from your body.

Does it hurt? Do you remain conscious?

Though we can’t ask anyone who’s been through it, we can piece together some pretty intriguing evidence on what that last moment might be like.

The History of the Guillotine

The guillotine, the infamous beheading machine, became the go-to execution method for French revolutionaries in the 18th century.

It was used in France until 1977, which means it outlived disco music and saw the first Star Wars movie.

During the French Revolution, an estimated 15,000 to 17,000 people were executed by guillotine.

Contrary to popular belief, most of these weren’t the fancy aristocrats but rather everyday folks. The reason for its widespread use? It was considered humane.

Enlightenment Ideals and Execution

The Enlightenment era, with its emphasis on reason and human rights, sought to replace medieval superstitions with more rational ideas—even in execution methods.

Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who championed the device, told the French National Assembly in 1789, “The blade hisses, the head falls, blood spurts, the man exists no more. With my machine, I’ll have your head off in the blink of an eye, and you will suffer not at all.”

The National Assembly laughed at first but then made the guillotine law in 1792, dubbing it “the most gentle of lethal methods.”

Tales of Consciousness After Decapitation

There are plenty of eerie stories about heads seeming to remain conscious after decapitation. But where does urban legend end, and fact begin?

One famous account is from 1905 when Dr. Jacques Beaurieux witnessed an execution in Paris.

He claimed that after the beheading, the severed head moved its eyes and lips. When Beaurieux called the criminal’s name, the head’s pupils focused on him. “I had the impression that living eyes were looking at me,” he said.

But this might just be the body’s post-mortem spasms, not proof of conscious awareness.

Scientific Investigations

In 2013, scientists decapitated anesthetized rats with a tiny guillotine, monitoring their brain activity.

They found increased brain activity for up to 15 seconds after decapitation, suggesting the rats might feel some pain.

“These responses are indicative that unanaesthetized rats would be likely to perceive decapitation as painful prior to the onset of insensibility,” the study concluded.

The Debate Continues

Other scientists, however, are skeptical. A 2023 review of the evidence suggests that consciousness, and therefore pain perception, is unlikely to persist after decapitation.

They argue that death by decapitation is nearly instantaneous.

“The evidence currently available to us is scant, and the studies that imply retained awareness in decapitated rats suffer from a low sample size. While the best evidence suggests that loss of consciousness is nearly instant in decapitation for both human and rodent models, it is possible that the truth will never be fully known,” the study concluded.

Looking Ahead

As our understanding of consciousness grows, and with ongoing research into head transplantation, we might one day get a clearer answer.

Until then, the true experience of the guillotine remains a macabre mystery.


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