Sunday, March 8, 2009

Is 'Full-Moon Madness' a Myth?

The familiar concept of “full-moon madness” is being examined in the harsh light of day by a number of scientists who now are concluding it’s mostly … well, lunacy.

Essentially, the scientists say the condition is a psychological urban legend, according to an article in the new issue of Scientific American. But if it’s just a legend, why is it so widespread?

  • Media coverage almost surely plays a role. Scores of Hollywood horror flicks portray full-moon nights as peak times of spooky occurrences such as stabbings, shootings and psychotic behaviors.
  • Perhaps more important, research demonstrates that many people fall prey to “illusory correlation” ~ the perception of an association that does not in fact exist. For example, many people who have joint pain insist that their pain increases during rainy weather, although research disconfirms this assertion. Much like the watery mirages we observe on freeways during hot summer days, illusory correlations can fool us into perceiving phenomena in their absence.

As for how the full-moon notion got started, the article quotes psychiatrist Charles Raison of Emory University:

According to Raison, the lunar lunacy effect may possess a small kernel of truth in that it may once have been genuine. Raison conjectures that before the advent of outdoor lighting in modern times, the bright light of the full moon deprived people who were living outside ~ including many who had severe mental disorders ~ of sleep. Because sleep deprivation often triggers erratic behavior in people with certain psychological conditions, such as bipolar disorder (formerly called manic depression), the full moon may have been linked to a heightened rate of bizarre behaviors in long-bygone eras. So the lunar lunacy effect is, in Raison and his colleagues’ terms, a “cultural fossil.”

Click here to read the complete Scientific American article.


lludmil said...

The article in "American scientist" does not cover the mental illness "lunatic".Would be nice to explore the correlation of this mental decease with the moon.In many Slavic languages as Bulgarian,Polish,Slovak,Russian ,a lunatic is referred to sleepwalking literally"one who walks under the moon".The Latin name for this illness is"somnambulism".The illness with its bizarre behavior fascinated many artistic souls to create works based on it.To mentioned a few:Shakespeare,s "Macbeth",Vincenzo Bellini,s opera "La Somnabula" and least but not last Disney,s beloved "Donald Duck" who was a 'lunatic" -sleepwalker.

Gregory LeFever said...

Thanks for your insights, Ludmil. I can't say I entirely go along with this scientific notion on Moon Madness. At the bottom of nearly all of these lores and legends that have been with us for century after century is usually some truth. Scientists are prone to ignore psychological subtleties in their mad dash to stomp out superstition.

George Breed said...

When I worked as a psychologist with community mental health centers, none of us wanted to be on-call during full moons. We collected no "scientific" data on the matter but it seemed there were more crises during those times.

My favored hypothesis was that since we humans are about 60% water, the moon's increased pull on earth water at its fullness could account for increased "luna"cy.

Of course, the same increased pull occurs with the new moon, but with no observed increase in lunacy (disturbed mental-emotional faculties). Therefore, the full moon "lunatic" phenomenon may be due to tidal pull plus the bright light that decreases sleep and perhaps increases agitation. The darkness of the new moon offsets the tidal pull with restricted mobility and depression.

Of course, this is all theoretical speculation by counselors up much of full moon nights talking folk down from suicidal ideation and/or admitting them to the hospital.

Sylvie said...

It's probably just due to perception, but emergency room workers and EMTs will generally say the full moon does bring out the exotic in the human beast :)

Cool blog, BTW

Gregory LeFever said...

Thanks for the great comments, George and Sylvie. The situations both of you mention regarding real-world health centers and ERs certainly seem to transcend urban legend. I suppose I'm hoping that even if scientists are investigating the effect in an attempt to discredit full-moon aberration, perhaps they'll end up quantifying its existence, as has been the case with previous studies I read years ago.

Thanks again for stopping by and adding perspective!

Mozart Guerrier said...

I'm not commenting on this post, just your blog in general. I love it. Usually when you run into blog on this subject matter their on the radical weird side... and aren't well organized. your blog is the difference.

Gregory LeFever said...

Thanks for the great compliment, Mozart! I visited your blog and will be returning for a closer read ... very interesting glimpse into a life quite different than my own.