Day 779: Full Moon Fever

originally published February 17, 2014

Even for those of us who don’t hang their spiritual hats upon the rack of organized religion, there exists the very real possibility that we are cosmically intertwined with forces and energies mightier (and invisiblier) than our own. Some of these forces – gravity, aging, the uncontestable craving for pizza after a night of drinking – have been proven. Others are clearly ridiculous (if you think you’re more of an aggressive driver because of your astrology sign, you’re wrong; you might just be an asshole). Still others are open to interpretation.

I have had this discussion with my wife so often, it’s almost like watching a rerun whenever the topic comes up. She is a teacher, spending her days surrounded by squalid little junior-high germ-buckets whose behaviors are subject to hormonal whim and hyperactive attention spans that could frustrate a housefly. She is convinced that when the moon is full, her students become more unruly, more emotionally explosive. A walk past our kitchen calendar can send a telegraph of dread up her spine.

Ever the cynic, the skeptic, the buzz-kill (her descriptor, not mine), I disagree. The moon is hovering in the sky, some sixty-five billion miles (give or take a lot) from these children’s fluttery brains. How could a slab of grey rock minding its business in our orbit possibly transform these grub-balls into more manic grub-balls? It’s time to do some really quick and sloppy research and settle this once and for all.

If there’s one concession I’ll grant my wife’s argument it’s that she has buckets of history on her side. Aristotle and Pliny the Elder observed that full moons would spark psychotic episodes among those who were susceptible to such things. Right through the 1700’s, actual doctors believed that the moon phase would have an impact on epileptic seizures, rheumatism and fevers. Hell, even the Latin word for moon, ‘luna’, forms the root of the word ‘lunatic’. This is not a recent superstition.

Are we hornier at a full moon? Do women’s reproductive systems tend to spurt out babies when our sky is lit up by a perfect white circle? Do our veins bleed more on that one day of every month?

As silly as these questions may seem, they have been asked among serious people wearing serious suits while seated at serious tables. British politician David Tredinnick asserted in 2009 that surgeons would not operate during a full moon because blood clotting is simply not effective. Forget school-kid behaviors – are our physical bodies getting thwacked by these surges in lunar visibility?

No. Quick answer – this just ain’t a thing. Day 29 of the lunar cycle (that’s full moon day) may be known for a higher-than-average incidence of gastrointestinal bleeding, but a number of other days in the lunar cycle best that average also. Even the Royal College of Surgeons laughed off David Tredinnick’s suggestion that surgeons abstain from wielding their scalpels on a full moon.

A few studies have looked into childbirths during a full moon and found a 1% bump on that day. Those studies have since been crushed by several others, including a 4-year sweep of records on the part of the UCLA hospital. In Phoenix, Arizona, an analysis of the 167,956 spontaneous (meaning not induced) births between 1995 and 2000 showed zero favoritism toward any particular phase of the moon. The National Center for Health Statistics took this even further in 2001, reading through the data of 70 million birth records. No dice.

Even the link between the lunar cycle and the human menstrual cycle is just a coincidence. And if you want to get into lunar-based hormonal horniness, you’d better be talking about fish.

The California Grunion lays its eggs over four consecutive nights, beginning on the full or new moon. Still, there’s no mystical celestial energy at work here; it’s simply a matter of planting their babies when the tide is highest.

Two studies – from 1978 and 1986 – found a correlation between the full moon and an increase of violence and aggression among people with mental disorders. Ten years later another study found nothing. A 2008 excavation into the frequency of epileptic seizures indicated that yes, there is a link. Aha! That’s something!

Or it might have been something, except that when the researchers shut the curtains and thus removed the influence of additional light, the seizures were regulated. So it had nothing to do with the moon’s profound tug on our gut-vibes, but more with the fact that epileptics, like most of us, need a little darkness at the end of the day.

The one concession science will make in this realm is how the moon can affect our sleep. A study was conducted last year at the University of Basel in Switzerland in which 33 subjects were monitored at length, with mitigating factors such as light and outside influence minimized. The human guinea pigs were told nothing about what was being tracked, and still researchers found that EEG delta activity (an indicator of that yummy level of deep sleep) dropped by 30% during a full moon, and falling asleep took on average about five minutes longer.

So until another study is performed that wipes the University of Basel study off the relevancy table, we have one point in the weird-moon-power column to the many in the science-kills-all-the-fun column. The skeptical curmudgeons remain in the lead.

But there must be more. It’s not just teachers – E.R. doctors, nurses and police officers all claim there’s something to this full moon phooey.

The moon plays yo-yo with our oceans, and given that we are pretty much biped sacks of swooshing water, shouldn’t it jolt us around too? Well, no. The tides are impacted by the time of day as much as by the moon, and the overall gravitational yank we feel from the moon is on par with that of a mosquito.

What about positive ions? They increase significantly during a full moon, so shouldn’t that sway our collective mojo? Actually no, and I’m a little weirded out that you’d ask. Positive ions’ effect on human behavior falls into the clumpy potato salad of pseudo-science. Besides, ionic frequency is blasted harder by an air conditioner or your city’s perpetual state of pollution than by shifts in the moon.

In the end, we’re left with the notion of confirmation bias. Police officers might notice a particularly nasty night of street crime on a full moon, yet they won’t bat an eye if a full moon passes with an average dollop of criminal activity. Teachers might observe their kids in a particularly rowdy state in the buildup to a full moon, but when their kids are wonked to the gills on a day that isn’t a full moon, it doesn’t count as evidence against the phenomenon. Add to the mix a splatter of communal reinforcement, as teachers and nurses chatter amongst themselves about how wildly the moon affects their professions, and you’ve got a big ol’ phenomenon, bolstered by nothing.

And that’s where we land – sorry honey, the science backs me up here. Now of course one can speculate on how a battered sleep pattern might affect junior high students or potential criminals. But no lunar cycle is making our blood boil or our hormones dance.

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