A different sort of deadhead
October 30, 2006 6:56 PM   Subscribe

Do you think a super strong person could yank off his own head?

Like one of those strong-man competition guys (the ones who lift those big boulders and carry around telephone poles), or some other freakishly stong person, could one of them actually kill himself by ripping off his own head? Or would other physiological factors make this feat impossible?
posted by RockyChrysler to Science & Nature (35 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
I think you'd get dead or paralyzed before your head actually came off, from screwing up your spine or something.
posted by aubilenon at 6:58 PM on October 30, 2006

I think you would incapacitate yourself before you could actually remove the head. Break his own neck, sure. Rip off the head, no.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:00 PM on October 30, 2006

Lots of factors here - psychology, physiology, anatomy. I think ignoring all the mental issues, the problem will be that the muscles used to actually pull of the head - shoulder, neck and back muscles - are the same ones that will hold the head on, so the stronger there are in order to be your side-show strongman, the stronger they'll be to overcome to rip off the head. I don't know if this is a zero-sum game, but it strikes me that it's going be very, very difficult, not matter how strong you are.
posted by benzo8 at 7:01 PM on October 30, 2006

Zombies in an advanced stage of decay, with their enhanced muscular strength, would however be able to manage this quite easily.
posted by unSane at 7:09 PM on October 30, 2006 [8 favorites]

unSane: lol

In a loose corollary, competition level bodybuilders have been known to snap their own ankles tripping because the normal muscular reflex your body reacts with is enough to break the bones if your muscles are sufficiently strong.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 7:13 PM on October 30, 2006

You'd need some pulleys, levers or a fulcrum, but if you're going to go to that length, you're looking for trouble. I think Pollomacho and benzo8 are right.
posted by Frank Grimes at 7:21 PM on October 30, 2006

fyi: pubmed has articles on topics such as the tensile strength of spinal ligaments, if you are interested in trying to develope a number to compare to human strength limits.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 7:22 PM on October 30, 2006

Seconding unSane, plus I think a Catholic saint could do it. I just was at a school assembly where one of the kids acted out the part of saint who the kid said was beheaded and died three days later. Unfortunately the last three days of the saint's life was not the part portrayed.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:25 PM on October 30, 2006 [3 favorites]

Chancey, V. C., Nightingale, R. W., Van Ee, C. A., Knaub, K. E., and Myers, B. S. (2003). Im-proved estimation of human neck tensile tolerance: reducing the range of reported toler-ance using anthropometrically correct muscles and optimizing physiologic initial condi-tions. Stapp Car Crash Journal 47, 135-154.

Here's R.W. Nightingale's homepage at Duke:


Email him and ask?
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 7:29 PM on October 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't know why I didn't make that an active link...
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 7:31 PM on October 30, 2006

The threshold question is whether it's possible to rip off someone else's head. If you can't even tear someone else's head off, you certainly can't do it to yourself.
posted by brain_drain at 7:41 PM on October 30, 2006

I don't think so, and I'll tell you why: it's because the major muscle group involved in doing this is the triceps, and the triceps is quite weak when the elbow is flexed 90 degrees or more.

I doubt that anyone's strong enough to rip off an adult person's head at all, although I'm not certain that a powerlifter who rigged up some kind of mechanism to transfer the power of his squat to someone's neck might not manage it.

If you Google for autodecapitation, you'll find a couple of articles about men who tied ropes to fixed objects, tied the other end around their necks, got in their car (one an SUV, the other a Geo Metro), and then accelerated away. They succeeded; the SUV, which we assume weighed somewhere around 5000 lbs, was estimated to be traveling 30 mph at the unhappy moment.

Huh, this gets more interesting as you read more about it. Black Jack Ketchum apparently was decapitated during his hanging; the rope was too long, but a photo of the scaffold on the internet shows it couldn't have been much longer than 12 feet. So the energy necessary to decapitate someone shouldn't be much more than that necessary to hurl a man 12 feet in the air; it'd have to all be brought to bear on the neck in a pretty quick movement, though, and I doubt that's possible.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:00 PM on October 30, 2006 [9 favorites]

I am grinning ear to ear. What prompted this question?

I don't think it's possible, because you presumably need your brain sending signals to the rest of your body in order to continue pulling (or... pushing... or whatever). So unless you applied a ton of force in a short burst I don't think so. The other problem is the muscles that support your head would be developed along with your arms... kind of creating a catch-22 situation.

Maybe you could do it with your legs though...

Could electrical current be used to contract the muscles? This would maximize force (right?) and wouldn't quit because of minor brain-disconnect issues.
posted by phrontist at 8:06 PM on October 30, 2006

You can definately break your own neck though.
posted by phrontist at 8:07 PM on October 30, 2006

Of all the hypothetical questions, this one doesn't get deleted?
posted by knave at 8:09 PM on October 30, 2006

Are you strong? Try it, but have some farker video the attempt and then we will know.

Good Lord, why is this question still here?
posted by caddis at 8:16 PM on October 30, 2006

knave, maybe it's for a NaNoWriMo plot.
posted by callmejay at 8:18 PM on October 30, 2006

Although designed for trimming paper, a personal guillotine offers significant force multiplication and simple operation. A determined user might accomplish a practical self-decapitation by a determined and forceful stroke. Certainly, since Roman times, embarrassed men with access to simple training equipment have, intentionally or otherwise, accomplished much the same result, by attempting their Max.
posted by paulsc at 8:23 PM on October 30, 2006

A sufficiently strong man could, of course, be strong enough to push a button turning on a head ripping machine, effectively ripping off his own head. And no, you couldn't consitantly win a fight against yourself using this method, even if you are five years old.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:31 PM on October 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't think so, but I'm pretty sure you could easily rip off your own ears. I understand that it only takes a couple of lbs of weight.
posted by crabintheocean at 8:53 PM on October 30, 2006

I've come pretty damn close.

Oh wait, you meant my noggin.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:57 PM on October 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

Yes, I'm 100% sure they could.
posted by Hildago at 10:05 PM on October 30, 2006

Of all the hypothetical questions, this one doesn't get deleted?

Eh, this is why I read AskMe. It's not the how-do-I-fix-my router questions, I swear.

posted by trevyn at 12:30 AM on October 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

Black Jack Ketchum apparently was decapitated during his hanging

This was actually a fairly common occurence during hangings, which was why drop tables were introduced. They also helped with the opposite problem of an insufficient drop causing the person to die by strangulation rather than a broken neck.

I agree that the problem is not so much one of strength (although that is certainly a potential problem) but leverage and grip.
posted by TedW at 5:38 AM on October 31, 2006

edit-not really "fairly common", but "occasional" would be more accurate.
posted by TedW at 5:43 AM on October 31, 2006

Don't forget that typically the neck muscles in a stronger person would also be thicker in proportion to their increased strength, making it harder to self-sever in this manner.

With proper preparation (drilling to weaken the spine while maintaining the nerve bundle) and similar treatment to the connective and muscular tissues under local anaethesia, you could have something.

An osteoporosis patient may tempt you, but don't fall into that trap. Although this would avoid the necessity of preparing the spinal column (all the fun with none of the work), leaving only the muscles, connective tissue, and skin, the brittle bones threaten the integrity of the arms, along with the rest of the maneuver. Unless a brace of some sort could be constructed.

If a brace isn't practical, I suggest exploring hydraulic rams or industrial acids applied to CIPA patients (they feel no pain!). You mustn't think of this as cheating, because this is pioneering work.
posted by empyrean at 6:22 AM on October 31, 2006

He could grip it by the husk...
posted by leapfrog at 7:19 AM on October 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

We always contemplated the very zen question of whether Superman was strong enough to pull his head off.
posted by jasper411 at 8:50 AM on October 31, 2006

Of all the hypothetical questions, this one doesn't get deleted?

Hypothetical questions are kosher, and always have been, as long as they admit of a reasonable, informed answer. It's only the "open ended unanswerable hypothetical questions" which are disallowed.

posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:17 PM on October 31, 2006


It's not a question of where he grips it, it's a simple question of weight ratios.

posted by SlyBevel at 2:20 PM on October 31, 2006

So you tie one end of the piano wire around your neck, and tie the other end to a post on the other side of the train tracks...
posted by I Am Not a Lobster at 3:18 PM on October 31, 2006

I'm going with "absolutely not." One could probably break one's own neck much more easily, but to actually tear the connective tissue and the flesh itself, all in one go, would take a tremendous amount of force. 500 newtons? A thousand? I'm not certain exactly how much force, but certainly more than even the strongest human could muster.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 3:39 PM on October 31, 2006

Best answer: Having dissected a human being I can tell you this: they are held together extremely well. They're quite difficult to get apart, even with sharp instruments.
posted by neuron at 9:06 PM on October 31, 2006 [2 favorites]

I say, not without mechanical aid. The bulging muscles of a sufficiently strong arm, shoulder, and neck would make it difficult if not impossible for such a person to actually get his arm around the head to grasp and pull efficiently.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:18 AM on November 1, 2006

Response by poster: I am grinning ear to ear. What prompted this question?

i could be doing research... but, really, in view of the season, i was just curious.

thanks to all for your morbid replies!
posted by RockyChrysler at 12:03 PM on November 1, 2006

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