It’s a time for werewolves and strange doings down in the woodshed. The effects of the full moon are rich in folklore and feature endlessly in tales of the supernatural. You just know something’s afoot when Alfred Noyes’ Highwayman rides out when ‘the moon is a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy seas.’ The mad wander and dogs howl.
Anecdotal evidence of human behavioural changes during the time of a full moon is legion. The lunar cycle has been linked to a wide range of mystifying phenomena, from escalations in violent crimes and A&E admissions to fertility and blood loss. Even historically, the link between psychological abnormality and the moon phases seemed so evident, our very word for the insane was drawn from the moon: lunatic.
And yet the idea that a celestial body, 238,900 miles (384,400 km) away, could actually affect human physiology seems so fantastic even old wives might add disclaimers.
However, now Swiss scientists appear to have found evidence that the lunar cycle really does affect our sleep patterns. According to their research, around the time of the full moon our sleep actually is more disturbed whether we can see the moon or not. Testing 33 healthy men and women, aged between 20 and 74, in a sleep laboratory, and correlating the data with the moon’s phases, they have made an astonishing association. As their study in the latest issue of Current Biology stated, in the sort of soporific language that only a sleep clinic could produce:
“Subjective and objective measures of sleep vary according to lunar phase and thus may reflect circa-lunar rhythmicity in humans. To exclude confounders such as increased light at night or the potential bias in perception regarding a lunar influence on sleep, we retrospectively analysed sleep structure, electroencephalographic activity during non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep, and secretion of the hormones melatonin and cortisol…”
Melatonin, the brain chemical that induces sleep, the total sleep time, and the ‘delta sleep time’ (our deepest sleep), all reached their lowest levels during the full moon, and their highest as the moon waxed and waned. The average time it took to fall asleep and the time to arrive at REM sleep (the type of sleep in which dreams occur) followed the opposite pattern, longest at the full moon and shorter as it waxed and waned.
As Christian Cajochen, a professor of neuroscience who led the study at the University of Basel, told the New York Times, “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,” he said. “But we don’t have direct evidence for that.”
If these findings prove to be correct, they may help to explain the reports of increases in violent and abnormal behaviour during full moons. Both are also associated with sleep deprivation. The full ramifications of this report are still to be felt. If we really are influenced by the position of the moon, have all those astrologers been right all along? Will the moon’s gravity, that pulls the tides of the world, be found to really affect our disposition from birth, or even our future? Today you can expect a tall dark handsome stranger to tell you.
Marius Brill’s hilarious novel How to Forget is available in all good book shops.