The Lunar Effect: Fact or Fiction?


Some legends say that the full Moon brings out the worst in people, causing them to sometimes act strangely during this phase of the Moon; numerous books and movies have depicted bizarre, even unnatural, behaviors. Belief in the “lunar lunacy effect”, or “Transylvania effect” as it is sometimes called, persisted in Europe through the Middle Ages, when humans were widely reputed to transmogrify into werewolves or vampires during a full Moon. However, does the Moon, in fact, have this kind of power?

Many studies have aimed to discover the connection between the Moon and human behavior, especially during the full Moon. Greek philosopher Aristotle and Roman historian Pliny the Elder suggested that the brain was the “moistest” organ in the body and thereby most susceptible to the pernicious influences of the Moon, which triggers the tides.

Following Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, some contemporary authors, such as Miami psychiatrist, Arnold Lieber, have speculated that the full Moon’s supposed effects on behavior arise from its influence on water. After all, the human body is about 80% water, so perhaps the Moon works its mischievous magic by somehow disrupting the alignment of water molecules in the nervous system.

However, there are at least three reasons why this explanation is not true. First, the gravitational effects of the Moon are too infinitesimal to generate any meaningful effects on brain activity. Second, the Moon’s gravitational force affects only open bodies of water, such as oceans and lakes, but not contained sources of water, such as the human brain. Finally, the gravitational effect of the Moon is just as potent during new Moons—when the Moon is invisible to us—as it is during full Moons.

A team of researchers from the University of South Florida completed what they believe to be a definitive answer to the question of whether or not the full Moon causes epileptic seizures. The team reviewed 770 seizure occurrences over a three-year period that took place in the epilepsy monitoring unit at Tampa General Hospital. The goal was to determine whether or not epileptic seizures occurred more often during full moons.

The study, which was published in the scholarly journal Epilepsy and Behavior, revealed that the full Moon period actually had the fewest epileptic seizures. These results led the scientists to conclude that there is no significant correlation between the full Moon and increased incidence of epileptic seizures.

A new study published in the Current Biology journal supports what the more progressive vein of scientific inquiry has been learning for years, mainly that the human body responds to the changing geophysical rhythms of lunar cycles as a result of its own internal circa lunar clock.

To reach this conclusion, researchers from the University of Basel (UB) in Switzerland studied the sleeping patterns of 33 volunteers who were divided into two separate age groups. All the participants slept in a specially designed sleeping laboratory, and while they slept, scientists analyzed their brain patterns, eye movements, and hormone secretion levels during varying stages of the regular lunar cycle.

At the end, the research team observed that participants experienced a lower quality of sleep during full Moon cycles, even when the Moon was not necessarily visible to them. On average, it also took the participants about five minutes longer to fall asleep during a full Moon, not to mention the fact that these same participants slept about 20 minutes less on a given night around times when the Moon was at its fullest phase compared to other times.

“The lunar cycle seems to influence human sleep, even when one does not ‘see’ the Moon and is not aware of the actual moon phase,” says Christian Cajochen from UB’s Psychiatric Hospital, who led the study. “This is the first reliable evidence that a lunar rhythm can modulate sleep structure in humans when measured under the highly controlled conditions of a circadian laboratory study protocol without time cues”.

“The only explanation we could come up with is that maybe there is a lunar clock in the brain, as found in other species like fish and other marine animals,” adds Cajochen, as quoted by The New York Times (NYT), about the discovery. “But we do not have direct evidence for that”.

REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep latency, deep slow wave sleep, sleep EEG-Delta activity, and even melatonin production all change during full moons, which suggests that humans do, indeed, possess a unique and inherent lunar sensitivity that modern science is only recently beginning to understand.

It is hard to say where the lunar clock is; it is likely in the suprachiasmatic nuclei, a tiny region of the brain near the optic nerve that is involved in the production of melatonin, certain neurotransmitters and other time-keeping chemicals, all in a rhythm consistent with both its terrestrial and cosmic surroundings. Physically, human beings may be creatures of just this world, but our brains—and our behavior—appear to belong to two.


This article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Spring 2014 issue.

Cover image: Shutterstock.

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