13 August 2012

Off with their heads and into their minds

The Chirurgeon's Apprentice carries a fascinating discussion of that time-honored question, "if you lose your head, do you know it (albeit briefly)?"
I have often heard a story retold about a man who attended the execution of his friend during the French Revolution. Seconds after the guillotine fell, the man retrieved the severed head and asked it a series of questions in order to determine whether or not it was possible to retain consciousness after decapitation. Through a system of blinking, the victim allegedly communicated his message back to his friend. The ending to this story changes according to the whims of the narrator… or perhaps the number of drinks he or she has consumed by that time. 
We should add to this wonderful essay, however, Xavier Bichat's famous contribution to the question, which appeared in his Physiological Researches on Life and Death. Bichat, the originator of the idea that bodies are comprised of distinct tissues, wrote around 1802:
I had authority, during the winter of year 7 [1798 as year 7 refers to the Revolutionary Calender] to make different experiments upon the bodies of those guillotined. They were at my disposal some thirty or forty minutes after the execution. In some every species of mobility was extinct; and in others this property was restored with greater or less facility in all muscles, by common agents.
Bichat goes on in his volume to discuss the influence of the death of the brain on that of the other tissues.

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