Terrorist beheadings and other forms of inflicted, violent death: Are victims aware of what is happening around them after their heart and lungs have stopped working?
Posted by Dr. Anthony G. Payne
The many beheadings carried out by insurgents in Iraq during the past year or so not unexpectedly generated expressions of revulsion and denunciation far and wide. It is difficult for all but the most callous souls not to feel pangs of anguish for those who have been dealt this grisly fate. No doubt many of you have at one time or another found yourself trying to imagine the thoughts and feelings of the victims prior to and during decapitation. And then thinking, “Were they aware of anything following this despicable act?”
This concern has a lot to do with our human capacity to emphasize and sympathize with others, but there is an element of “enlightened self-interest” in our curiosity and even fascination with dying and death. When we ask “What did that poor soul experience?”, we are in some way seeking in the death of others some idea of what we might sense or think or visualize as we go through our own final, irreversible “systems failure”.
Modern science has amassed a great deal of evidence that the dying brain can and often does generate a wide range of images and such, not unexpectedly reflective of individual beliefs, expectation, and history. But what of the period immediately following cessation of heart and lungs? For example, does the brain of a just severed head continue to function?
Consider this account tendered by a French physician named Beaurieux who attended the state-sanctioned guillotining of a criminal named Languille during the early morning hours of June 28th, 1905 (France abolished the death penalty in 1981):