On Lunacy (Do things get crazy during a full moon)

In today’s Straight Dope Classic, Cecil effectively debunked the tidal effects theory of lunacy. Also, he quoted studies which found no discernable links between the full moon and crime or psychoses.

Still, if this is an urban legend, it is one that pre-dates the term by many centuries. With that sort of longevity it seems reasonable that there must be some sort of basis for it.

The one thing I have never seen mentioned in discussions of full moon fever is the fact that the nights are a lot brighter during a full moon. This fact may have escaped you if you have always lived in an urban area, but it is glaringly (heh) apparent to rural dwellers. On a clear night, the full moon can be bright enough to activate the cones in your eyes so that colors are apparent. This extra period of light must have some effect on humans and other diurnal species.

Does anyone know if there have been any studies into this aspect of the full moon and its physiological effects? Maybe a change in serotonin levels or a greater incidence of insomnia or night terrors? Please enlighten me.

I don’t know the answer to your quesion, but were aware that it is easily proven that “crazy things” almost always happen within a week of either the full or new moon?


And almost always on days ending in a “y”, as well.

There could of course be a self-fulfilling lunar effect; people who have mental problems are perhaps more likely to go off the deep end when they see a full moon precisely because they’ve heard of the effect it’s supposed to have on them.

There have been articles on this in Skeptical Inquirer, and the book Science and the Paranormal (ed. George Abell http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0684178206/qid=1122036731/sr=8-9/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i9_xgl14/102-7566948-4360139?v=glance&s=books&n=507846 ) devotes a chapter to it. These use statistics to examine the claim, and the only correlation they could find was when the full moon coincided with a weekend (so the increase in emergency-room visits was really a consequence of the “weekend effect”, not the full moon.)

Well, sure. The full moon is, to paraphrase Dogbert, biiiig and roooouuuund. There’s your basis, really. Just because people have long believed in its power to induce madness doesn’t mean it really does, just that the moon is traditionally important and an object of observation and study.

That’s an interesting point, and one I haven’t thought of before. Of course, it does suggest a simpler explanation than physiological effects–more light means more chances for idiots to get up to nonsense.

Please read some of Jan Brunvand’s books. A legend’s longevity has nothing to do with its veracity. The ones that propagate seem to be ones that offer lessons.

I’ve read that the full moon is ten times brighter than the quarter moon (which is a half-full moon really). Not twice as bright as you might expect, but ten times! That amazes me.

Bingo. It’s not the researchers doing bad statistics, it’s that the people being studied are biased (to go crazy at the moon). Chemical reason, not gravitational.

But this doesn’t seem to be true. The evidence indicates that people DON’T go crazy any more during the full moon than at any other time. Not for chemical reasons, not for gravitational reasons, not for any reasons.

So they can’t be biased to go crazy at the moon, because they aren’t going crazy at the moon.

Or am I misunderstanding your post?

I would find it hard to believe that NO ONE who’s mentally unstable goes crazy during a full moon. I have not looked at any statistics. If the effect is small, I would believe it. I’m sure it’s hard to be precise with a limited number of subjects and a limited amount of time.

To sum up, I don’t believe gravity is affecting the water in cops/nurses or regular folk/already crazy folk. I would find it plausible if someone found a psychological reason for the crazies getting extra crazy.

I think the problem might be same as in the “Do women’s cycles synchronize?” question. A full moon isn’t really just one day. Well, technically it is, but the moon is pretty darn bright for the day or 2 (or 3 whatever - someone grab the moon light power graph from that shelf over there, would ya?) before and after the full moon. It’s pretty hard to separate the weekends from a period of time that’s 5-7 days long.

Sure they do. Just not anymore often than they go crazy when it isn’t a full moon.

As long as by “small” you mean “non-existent as far as we can tell” then I agree.

I absolutely agree.

At least with the qualification that when we say gravity doesn’t affect us that we mean “the slightly changed gravity at the time of the full moon as compared to other time does not affect anyone’s behavior in any noticeable or measurable way.”

Obviously gravity affects us. We are held to the ground, and we rise and fall with the tides to some small degree just as everything around us does. But this very small amount is not noticeably affecting our behavior.

But the crazies (or anyone else) don’t seem to be getting extra crazy. This is the point. We don’t need any reason to explain things that aren’t happening.

I’m not sure what problem you mean. A problem explaining why people are crazier around the full moon?

What the evidence seems to say is that there in NO correlation between the full moon and increased craziness. Graph the “amount” of craziness, and compare it with the dates of the full moons, and they don’t line up. Craziness goes up sometimes with no full moon, goes down sometimes when there is a full moon, sometimes does the opposite, and also does everything in-between.

The entire “going crazy at the full moon” phenomenon seems to be nothing more than selective memory, as Cecil said. When someone does something crazy and someone else notices that it is (or close to) a full moon, that person may remember that and think “full moon effect”. Someone does something crazy and it isn’t a full moon and all anyone thinks is “people do stupid things”.

There simply is no need to look for an explanation for behavior that does not exist.

Okay, here’s the thing I was trying to get at, but no one has addressed. For all of mankind’s history, there has been a roughly 4 week cycle of moon phases. The same is true of our proto-ancestors and theirs as well. Up until very recently, having a few nights a month that were brightly lit enough for hunting, traveling or socializing would be a pretty big deal. Hey, an extra chance to catch more food, raid the neighbors’ camp or get laid! But with the advent of lighting in the past couple of centuries (I’m including gas lamps), we can have a full moon or more, pretty much whenever we want it, which seems to be always. For an urban dweller, the paltry extra light provided by the full moon is hardly noticeable amidst the mercury vapor glow they are continuously bathed in. Outside of the cities, a full moon is a much more obvious event, but even there, electric lighting renders the moons’ contributions moot.

So, if there were some physical effect on our hormone levels or state of general nocturnal activity originally caused by the additional light provided a full moon, then that effect would now be continuous due to modern lighting. Current studies would not then be able to distinguish any difference between the full moon and any other time of the month. We’d all be permanent lunatics.

CurtC, I’m well aware that a legend’s age is not an indicator of it’s veracity. After all, many people still believe in magical invisible beings, mythical monsters and trickle down economics. However, a legend that doesn’t require any faith in facts not in evidence and can be debunked just by general observation doesn’t typically last for thousands of years. Unless the stories had some basis in fact, but those facts are now buried in the general background noise.

You mean like astrology?

Its always been said that ERs and ICUs are typically busier on the full moon.
A friend and I decided to check that for ourselves.
We followed the admission log (number of patients), assignment weight (how sick) and diagnosis (strange or rare) for the ICU for every full moon and every new moon for one year. There was statisticly no difference. There were busy full moons and quiet full moons. The busiest day in our record was a new moon.


My question is, why does increased activity in ERs mean more craziness? Even using a colloquial definition of crazy (as opposed to the DSM IV) that would mean a major car wreck causes craziness.

Imagined scenario: So, it’s a frantically busy night in ER. Nurse A says to Orderly B, “I wonder if it’s a full moon? 'cause I heard things get more frantic around a full moon.” Orderly B, during her break, goes out to take a look.

So, using a 30 day lunar cycle (which will somewhat understate the probabilities) and assuming a full moon is three days (as per Jake4, including one day to each side where it looks close enough to full that you can’t tell the diff. So, a little more than ten percent of the time, the orderly will look outside and say, “Damn, she’s right, it’s a full moon!” and will come back in and tell everyone, “Hey, it’s frantic in here and it’s a full moon!”

Now, another two or three days, the orderly looks outside and the moon is not full but very close – two days off full, say – and the orderly comes back and reports, “No, the moon ain’t actually full, but it’s getting close! Imagine how much more frantic things will be tomorrow!” (Note that the orderly can’t tell, by looking once, whether the moon is going to be full in the next few days, or was full a few days ago.) So, that’s another ten percent of the time that the orderly will report back that it’s “almost” a full moon.

So, back to our scenario: around 20% of the time, the orderly will look outside and say, “Wow! She was right! It’s a full moon!” (or “it’s almost a full moon!”) and come back and tell everyone. Everyone will remember that night.

Now, what happens in the other 80% of the cases? No one is tabulating. The orderly looks outside, sees that it’s not a full moon nor close, shrugs her shoulders, and doesn’t bother to report back. “Nope, it’s not a full moon” isn’t news. So those cases go unremarked.

Thus, it’s not surprising that once a myth like that gets started, you’ll find ER folks who swear it’s true based on their own anecdotal experience. All it would take would be one frantic night coinciding with one full moon (or two or three days to each side) for the anecdotal experience to be firmly ingrained as an “always.”

Well, I think the feeling is that “craziness” in this context is really any kind of less than optimal or out of the ordinary behavior.

Almost all auto accidents, to use your example, have an element of “driver error” (to be kind). Other accidents involve people being careless, taking chances they normally wouldn’t, getting angrier than normal, etc.

All of these things get lumped together under the general heading of craziness when it’s a busy night for the police, rescue workers, and ER personnel. It’s not that all of those people are actually crazy in some way, it’s just that those behaviors contribute to the general level of “craziness”.

And (as Dex and I and Cecil and others said) when those frantic times coincide with, or are close to, a full moon, people may remember that and make the connection in their minds that full moon = more crazy behavior. When the frantic times don’t line up with a full moon, it’s just another busy night.

I’ve read the posted articles whenever I’ve come over the years, and have to say I’m a bit disappointed with the handling of this topic. There are two serious problems with Cecil’s approach to this situation.

  1. People with high sensitivity to the moon are very, very rare. ( Speculating on the specific cause e.g. gravity/ions or whatever is irrelevant for those people. Reality trumps all conjecture )

  2. It is extremely likely that people who react to the moon react differently to it- there will be an equal and opposite effect according to the moon phases. One person may be psychotic around a full moon and nuerotic around a new moon, and another person vice versa.

Both of these problems exclude the use of general statistics in any analysis of the situation.

How do I know it even exists? Well, because I suffer from hypersensitivity to the moon; regardless of whether I am aware of the moon’s phase or what is happening in my life. There have been long periods of time where I wouldn’t go outside at night at all, and never have time to look up at the sky during the day ( I would only be outside for maybe a total of 20 minutes anyway ).

Other times everything would be OK, all of my goals were being fulfilled in life and I’d be happy with everything. Very suddenly, I would fall into a psychotic, rambling , suicidal state but be fine in a couple of hours. When this happens cyclically and in sync with the moon, you tend to wonder if they might be related ( After long periods of denying the problem, I would check the current moon phase and date my episodes then compare them with the moon phases on those days ).

Just in explaining the general phenomen subjectively- there is a distinct difference between what you might experience on a full moon compared to what you’d experience on a new moon, yet undeniably they are very similar. A full moon would be like pushing the analytical side of your brain to an extreme and turning off the intuititive side, while a new moon would be the opposite.

Anyway, my point is simply that regardless of the theoretical problems behind this, I cannot deny the phenomen exists. It sounds like some hippie new age bullshit, but it’s simply a fact of life I have to deal with. Ultimately it’s not too terrible- there are some very interesting things you can accomplish with a cyclically and predictably unstable mind. It’s just when I fear for my health that things can get a little worrisome.

In conclusion, Cecil was wrong. Wrong wrong wrong, wrong. ( why didn’t he look into this subject from different viewpoints, as he did in some other cases that come to mind? )

Also, if bits of this are incoherent then I apologize- I had a bunch of blood taken from me today and it’s making me a little dazed.

morrowind, first let me say welcome to the Straight Dope, and that I’m sorry for the health problems you’re struggling with, and I hope you can find some lasting relief.

But your story doesn’t show that Cecil was “Wrong wrong wrong, wrong”. In fact it has little to do with what Cecil was talking about.

First, even if we assume that you have charted the ups and downs of your problems correctly and correctly correlated them to the moons phases, your story doesn’t show you have a sensitivity to the moon. It might show that you have a problem which runs on an approximately 28 day cycle, but that’s all.

Many women have extremely regular menstrual cycles running at about 28 days. In this case, just because a woman’s period starts right at the full moon for many months in a row, we don’t assume the full moon caused it.

Second, if such a thing as hypersensitivity to the moon exists but is “very, very rare”, and some people who have it react one way and “another person vice versa”, then this wouldn’t be the basis for the phenomenon that Cecil was talking about.

Cecil was addressing the old legend that many people act more strangely or out of the ordinary during a full moon. According to you, whatever strangeness the moon may cause is very rare, and occurs during different phases of the moon depending on the individual. This would not give rise to a widespread belief that craziness was associated with full moon.

Again, my sincerest wishes that you can find relief for your problems. But your story doesn’t seem to be related to the topic at hand.