Madness and the Moon

“It is the very error of the moon.
She comes more near the earth
than she was wont. And makes

men mad.”
—William Shakespeare, Othello

Since time immemorial, man has struggled to comprehend deviant behaviour. This inability to make sense of the seemingly senseless individuals has driven man to conjure many explanations. One of them was so impressive, that lunacy derived its name from it.

The word ‘lunacy’ derives its name from ‘Luna’, the Roman Goddess of Moon. It was, and still is, popularly believed that there is an association between insane behaviour and changes in the moon. Full moon is considered to be particularly influential, so much so that unusual activities are often explained by the saying: ‘There must be a full moon out there somewhere.’  

In fact, even today, doctors and nurses believe that they see more patients for mental health issues on full moon than at any other time; even some police forces often beef up security around full moon, believing that it leads to aggressive behaviours and higher crime rate. And perhaps the most entertaining reflection of this belief would be the commenters blaming the full moon for George Bush’s election as President in 2000!

So how did this association, now known as the lunar lunacy effect, come about? Amongst the most popular explanations is the fact that human body is majorly composed of water, a component that the moon exerts considerable influence over. Given the moon’s effects on tidal waves, it doesn’t seem completely absurd that man considered himself to be equally affected by this gravitational pull.

 Research however, has proved that this pull was too weak to influence us, with George Abell famously noting that a mosquito exerts greater gravitational pull over human beings than the moon.

One possible explanation for the rise in cases of insanity during the full moon period was offered 1999 by Raison, Klein and Steckler, explained in terms of lighting. The moon was the primary source of nocturnal illumination, which influenced the sleep-wake cycle. However, the full moon interfered with this cycle by offering greater light and thus leading to sleep deprivation, enough to induce mania/hypomania in those susceptible to it.

With the scientific progress within psychology, these commonly held myths about mental disorders needed to be dispelled in order to ensure proper treatment. Several studies were conducted, most of which pointed towards this association being nothing more than desperate attempts to comprehend the incomprehensible.

To begin with, there was found to be no association whatsoever between the full moon and the number of psychiatric admissions or emergency evaluations. Related to this, no rise was observed in suicide rates during the full-moon period. Contrary to security forces expectations, no relationship was found between violent crimes and moon changes. As far as American Presidential elections go, however, keeping this faith in full-moon lunacy and hoping Election Day to be a full-moon night may be someone’s only ‘trump’ card!

It is important to acknowledge the lunar lunacy effect as nothing more than a myth, because without this acceptance, recognising and dealing with mental disorders will be significantly hindered. While the moon is a convenient explanation, it is not a solution. Popular beliefs such as these only stigmatise those with disorders and make mental disorders a foreign, isolated subject.

There is a need to break the association between the two. The moon and madness may be popular but it is now time to let go of this myth. Perhaps, this is what the quirky Luna Lovegood, from Harry Potter, meant when she said, ‘Don’t worry. You are just as sane as I am.’                             

Chinmayee Kantak