Can you remember how well you slept the last time there was a full moon?
Do you feel that when the moon shines brightest, things just don’t seem quite right?
If so, you’re not alone. Despite a lack of scientific evidence, millions of people believe that the moon holds an uncanny power over them.
In this article, I’ll be looking at why people feel the moon has such an influence over them, as well as studies that have been done into this worldwide belief.
Then you can make your own decision as to whether or not you think you’ll sleep differently when the next full moon comes around.
Not just superstitious people
Even casual exposure to the emergency services, law enforcement, teaching or social care will involve contact with firm believers in the adverse effects of a full moon.
From hospitals to police stations, the full moon will be blamed for everything from poor sleep patterns to an increase in accident numbers to sudden psychotic episodes.
Serious, professional, highly trained individuals are certain the moon affects us. In 2011, the World Journal of Surgery stated that more than 40% of medical staff believed lunar phases impacted on human behavior. However, a thorough statistical analysis didn’t back this up.
The moon has been linked in the media to a rise in burglaries, changes in voting patterns, volatile stock market prices, more road accidents, less successful surgeries, and even the numbers of children born.
There’s no scientific proof to back up any of these claims, yet many people still believe the moon is somehow involved.
The Transylvania effect
The Transylvania Effect is a term first coined in academic literature in the 1990s. It describes the belief that the lunar cycle can produce both psychologically and physiologically disturbances in people and populations.
The belief that the moon exerts a direct influence on the body and mind can be traced back to pre-Christian times.
Pliny the Elder, Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher believed that because the full moon caused heavy dew it must also make the brain become “unnaturally moist”.
That was how, he claimed, the moon caused both epilepsy and lunacy. Hippocrates noted that “no physician should be entrusted with the treatment of disease who was ignorant of the science of astronomy”.
And in across various languages, the word lunatic has its root in the moon. The old English word for lunatic was monseoc, which literally means ‘moon sick’.
In the 21st century, we perpetuate lunar myths in our entertainment and our media. From books to films, from memes to light-hearted end of the world news stories, we constantly repeat the tropes of the Moon’s effect on behavior.
With the constant media repetition of an association between the full moon and human behaviour it is not surprising that such beliefs are widespread in the general public (Kelly et al. 1996)
The very earliest calendars were based on the cycles of the moon, with the sighting of the new moon indicating a new phase in the year.
Marks on the walls of the prehistoric painted caves at Lascaux in France are believed by Dr. Michael Rappenglueck, of the University of Munich, to be the earliest known calendar.
The series of dots and squares painted among the 15,000 year old drawings of bulls, horses and antelopes represent the 29 day lunar cycle.
Most pre-modern calendars were lunisolar, combining the solar year with the lunar year. The Julian calendar abandoned this in favor of a purely solar reckoning. However, the Islamic calendar opted for a purely lunar one.
It should be noted that lunar calendars have always been particularly popular among agricultural societies; this may well be the foundation for our belief that we sleep less during the full moon.
All full moons rise around the time of sunset. But the so-called “harvest moon” and “hunter’s moon”, which occur during the agriculturally busy late summer and autumn in the northern hemisphere behave in a notable way.
They move across the sky in a way that means there’s no long period of darkness between sunset and moonrise for several days around the full moon.
So our belief in restless sleep on full moon nights may stem from a long-held belief that we should be out working under the full moon.
Anecdotal versus strictly scientific
Anecdotal evidence for a lunar effect isn’t hard to find; some people swear they sleep poorly over the nights of the full moon. And moon madness stories from the front line of those who see humanity at its worst are surprisingly common.
We may publicly dismiss them, but privately we consider them because one captivating anecdote will always stick in the mind better than a host of scientific studies.
In nature, we can prove lunar rhythms – for example, the triggering of the spawning of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef around the full moon in December.
But with regard to humans, to date, no scientific study that indicates a lunar influence on behavior has stood up under scrutiny.
The closest a study came to actual evidence was a July 2013 project carried out at the University of Basel in Switzerland.
Under highly controlled conditions, a small sample of 33 healthy adults was recorded as having four minutes less REM sleep over the nights of the full moon.
Unfortunately, the results of the experiment have never been replicated, and the statistically small size of the sample casts doubt on the validity of the results.
Founded on misconceptions
The belief that the moon can influence the human body is founded on misconceptions then, it seems.
Some suggest that because the moon has a profound effect on the tides, it might also have an effect on humans since we are comprised mainly of water.
In actual fact, the moon exerts a very weak tidal force on uncontained water. Astronomer George O. Abell claims that a mosquito would exert more gravitational pull on your arm than the moon would on your body.
What research does demonstrate, however, is that many people fall prey to a phenomenon that University of Wisconsin–Madison psychologists Loren and Jean Chapman termed “illusory correlation”.
That is, the perception of an association that doesn’t in fact exist. For example, many people who have joint pain insist that their pain increases during rainy weather, although research shows this to be untrue.
There’s no established scientific link between the full moon and sleep patterns. Maybe there was in the past when the bright moonlight made us restless or allowed us to work later into the night.
But it’s something we left behind when we lit our houses and streets, and set about controlling our environment.
Or perhaps it’s a lingering legend from the days when something as otherworldly as the full moon in the sky just had to mean something!
On November 14, 2016, the moon was closer to Earth than it had been since January 26, 1948. It was both a full moon and a ‘supermoon’, and the next time it will be that close to the earth is November 25, 2034.
It was the closest and largest supermoon in 86 years, and there were a lot of headlines written about it in the media: helpful articles on what to expect, whether you should be worried, and how to explain poor sleep.
And so the myth lived on.
Do you feel that the moon influences how well you sleep? Does the full moon appear to affect your or someone you know’s behavior? Let me know in the comments below.