For thousands of years people have believed that the full moon exerts a mysterious control over human mental and behavioral processes. Our word lunatic shares the same basic Latin root Luna that stands for the moon. Is there really anything to this?
Well, if you were to ask Emergency Room personnel, police officers or EMS technicians, you would probably get an answer in the affirmative. The anecdotal reports purporting an increase of violent behavior, crime, mania and even suicide are widespread. One study indicates that 4 out of 5 mental health practitioners believe there is a causal connection between the full moon and erratic behavior. The truth is that there exists virtually no systematic clinical evidence to support any such claims.
We all know the full moon influences tide levels of the world’s oceans. That the oceans cover approximately 80% of the earth’s surface and that our bodies are about 80% water has been taken by some to suggest the full moon exerts an influence on us as it does with the tides. But as the earth is 25,000 miles in circumference at the equator, the full moon is pulling at over 12,000 miles of its surface in order to exert its influence. Most of us are about 2-3 feet in circumference, which means the full moon is pulling on about 15 inches of us. Not much support for this theory.
One thing that is helpful to keep in mind when trying to understand anecdotal misconceptions is that the world’s cities and towns have been effectively illuminated at night, by either gas or electricity, for less than 200 years. Prior to that, a full moon (on a clear night) could well have had a greater effect on people. It might, for example, have kept them awake at night, causing them to lose sleep and wake up grouchy and irritable and therefore primed for aggression. A full moon may have provided sufficient light for footpads and criminals to be out and about carrying forth their nefarious schemes: light enough for them to see, but still plenty of shadows to hide in when they needed to avoid detection. The local police forces were no doubt aware of the increased criminal activity during a full moon and responded with increased patrols. When the patrols encountered these criminals, no doubt the latter put up a strong resistance to being taken, sowing the seeds for later tales of increased manic behavior.
So it would appear that there is some link between a full moon and increases in certain types of activity, but that link is not a direct causal one. An interesting example of getting a causal relationship almost right comes to us from the Middle Ages. Northern European peoples during the terrible plague epidemics of the time took to building their houses with no windows on the south side. They knew that instances of the plague came from that direction, the direction of the Mediterranean Sea. They thought the infecting agent was airborne, so they sealed off the side of the house that faced that direction. This might have been an effective deterrent had the plague virus not been carried by rats, which infected town after town, having made their way north from the Mediterranean seaports.
That the connection between the full moon and insanity or similar related behaviors could be sustained for so many centuries is a remarkable testimony to the power of personal beliefs. You sometimes hear people say things like Believe in yourself and there’s nothing you can’t do. I understand what they mean and it pleases me to think that it is true, but I never really could wrap my mind around the concept. I am too pragmatic and literal a person to derive any but the most fleeting benefit from a statement like that. Yet it sounds true and I’m sure there are lots of other people somehow better equipped than I am to take this belief into their lives.
Perhaps the process is rendered more accessible when negative consequences are involved, seven years bad luck for breaking a mirror, step on a crack, break your mother’s back, Friday the thirteenth, etc. We don’t really believe these things, yet these types of beliefs have been passed on, in one form or another, from generation to generation since civilization began. Perhaps they had a certain entertainment value as our ancestors were forced to live without benefit of HDTV, cell phones or iPods. Perhaps they help keep us in touch with our cultural and ancestral roots.
The philosopher and poet George Santayana once observed, “Men become superstitious, not because they have too much imagination, but because they are not aware that they have any.” It certainly is an interesting thought to ponder, particularly under the soft brilliant light of a full moon.