Loafers, Lovers, and Lunatics

This past weekend, the moon was full–a brilliant orb in the night sky. Each month, people all over the world share this sight and the feelings that such magnificence inspires. On a cloudless night, it casts deep shadows while illuminating the landscape. Why are we so affected by the magic of moonlight?

There has long been a fascination with the moon. There’s a “man in the moon”; she can be a ‘harsh mistress.’ Under a full moon, people have been inspired to create beautiful music and write poetry; we ‘know’ that violence escalates– especially when full moons combine forces with the sultry heat of tropical summers. Are more violent crimes committed under a full moon? Are more babies born at the time of a full moon? Are you touched by the magnetism/mesmerism of that brightness presiding over the darkened landscape?

I reviewed a number of papers to write this Insight. . .and I must admit, I was a little surprised, but, perhaps more disappointed. Studies of the full moon (or any phase of the moon) have failed to show a reliable and significant correlation with any of the following:
-suicide rates
-traffic accidents
-crisis calls
-birth of babies
-major disasters
-psychiatric admissions
-casino payout rates
-violent crimes
-emergency room admissions

The above perceptions are rooted in our heritage; we speak them as truths; we are wrong. Multiple, very well-designed studies dispel all the above statements. So, why do we believe them to be true? Two of the biggest reasons are ‘cognitive bias and communal reinforcement’. In other words, if you grew up having your grandmother, and the police, and the mass media telling you that various phenomena occur at the time of the full moon, you will notice them occurring when the moon is full. Conversely, you will tend to ignore these same phenomena (such as accidents, suicides, births) during other moon phases. We have selective memories; consequently, strange things that happen when the moon is full only reinforce our impressions that a relationship exists.

One of the greatest perceptions is that ‘madness’ increases when the moon is full. After all, the term, “lunatic” is built on the Latin word for moon, luna . In fact, studies conclude that moon phases account for less than 1% of the variability of human behavior known as “lunacy” (Kelly et al, The Outer Edge, 1996). There are similar studies to refute the notions of more childbirths, more alcoholism, more violent crimes, and more suicides. Additionally, I was surprised to read that the moon’s effect on ocean tides is actually a weak force. “A mother holding her child ‘will exert 12 million times as much tidal force on her child as the moon'”.(Carroll, 1998). So, as truths are disproved one by one, we are left with myths and our selective perceptions. The romantic in me resists the rationality in all of this; but my pragmatic mind accepts the reality.

But, you know what? All of this science will not change the way each full moon affects me personally. I am charged somehow with the sense of its magnitude and brilliance. Please understand that the facts dispel notions of major health and medical consequences, but don’t let them dissuade you from acknowledging the impact that the moon cycles have on you individually. I want to close with a poem I wrote several years ago. It is a powerful feeling that I continue to experience with each full moon.

The new moon is cruel–a sharp icy gash in the sky–it provides
little light–seems to be a wound–a tear needing

As the shape rounds and fills–it softens–develops warmth
and incites passions

The full moon is romantic–invigorating and awesome–it can stop
one in his tracks–stimulates both reverence and poetry

One feels connected to the full moon–not alone–distant friends and
family share the same glorious sight and feelings. . .

We need more full moons———
S.L.Hines 1994

Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
July 2000