Lunar Effects & Near Deaths

A rigorous new study in Current Biology demonstrates that the full moon deeply impacts human sleep. This won’t come as any surprise to wearers of the magical Three Wolf Moon shirt (which famously has been reviewed by ~2,600 Amazon customers) but it may surprise others. If there is one cross-cultural fact coming from world folklore, it is this: full moons work weird effects not only on wolves but also on us.


As reported by the Economist, full-moon effects (none of which were caused by light exposure) were significant:

Electroencephalography showed that the volunteers slept, on average, 20 minutes less around the time of the full Moon. It also took them five minutes longer to get to sleep, their delta activity (a measure of how deeply they were sleeping) was 30% lower than at other times, their level of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, was reduced, and they reported, subjectively, that they had not slept as well as usual. Nor was any of this connected, in female volunteers, with their menstrual cycles.

This gives rise to an obvious question: What causal mechanism(s) are at work? The authors suggest that we subconsciously attune ourselves to monthly lunar cycles just as we do to daily solar cycles. Why we should do this is not entirely clear, though our correspondent suggests that disturbed sleep on bright nights might be good for predator defense. When wolves are howling and prowling, it’s best to be vigilant, or so the adaptive story goes. While I can think of other adaptive just-so stories to account for this effect, I’m not sure why the study authors reject the tidal hypothesis or some version of it.

Lunar cycles have powerful gravitational effects. Because these cause tidal fluctuations, it seems reasonable to suppose they also impact body and cellular fluids. Gravitational changes could also impact our minds-bodies in ways that we simply don’t understand. Perhaps this is an example of action at a distance or quantum entanglement. We really don’t know much about consciousness or sleep, so it wouldn’t be surprising if scientists prove something along these lines over the next few hundred years.

We also don’t know much about death, which in the absence of catastrophic trauma is not a moment but is a process — an unfolding and slow shutting down. In a visually stunning and widely reported study that appeared in PLOS Biology last week, a research team filmed nematode worms as they died. As the cellular death cascade proceeds, the worms paradoxically begin glowing with ever brighter blue fluorescence:


It appears the cells are signaling one another with a final systemic burst, effectively saying: Time To Die. This brings to mind one of the most poignant scenes in the history of film, Roy’s expiration in “Blade Runner”:

As the ascending dove is metaphorically meant to suggest, death has long been associated with something else. For Colton Burpo, near death resulted in a profitable trip to heaven, a meeting with “blue-eyed” Jesus, and a chance to test out some angel wings. For Dr. Eben Alexander, his comatose experience resulted in a trip to heaven, replete with “God’s unconditional love.” While most people who have near death experiences don’t later report having a “religious” experience, nearly all who do have one consistent with their personal religion or cultural milieu. This strongly suggests NDEs are brain-based and, for some people, “religion” is the frame through which the near death (but not dead) is actually experienced or subsequently confabulated. Oliver Sacks thinks so.

Having said all this, it’s sobering to realize we don’t have a good medical or scientific fix on “death.” In this fascinating Spiegel interview with Dr. Sam Parnia, we get a sense for the key issues:

Spiegel: Basic first aid teaches us that the brain is very fragile. Three to five minutes after the heart stops, the brain incurs permanent damage due to lack of oxygen.

Parnia: This is a widely-held misconception, even among doctors. It’s mostly based on research done in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. In those days, doctors concluded that brain cell death was inevitable in such a short time. Now we know that if treatment is correct, it really can take hours for brain cells to die. Part of the problem is that we all live in the past — patients, doctors, nurses and legislatures. We have preconceived ideas about death.

For thousands of years, death was a clear, precise moment: The heart stopped beating, and that was it. Nothing could be done from then on. You either were alive or not. But since the arrival of CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) more than 50 years ago, we know that this view is no longer correct. Death is not a fixed moment anymore. From a cellular perspective, it is a process that proceeds at various speeds in the different tissues of the body after the heart stops.

When brain cells have decayed after a number of hours, no intervention, neither now nor in a 1000 years, will bring a person back. That death is final. But up to that point, there is a gray zone.

Today, we simply do not know when someone transitions from potentially reversible to irreversible. Tests used today to diagnose brain death are tests of brain stem function — not of actual cell death.

If Dr. Parnia is correct, it means that the medical instruments currently used to determine “death” are not definitive and that people who supposedly were “dead” but then came back to “life” were not finally or irrevocably dead. Their brain cells were still active or “alive” while they were visiting the great beyond.


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10 thoughts on “Lunar Effects & Near Deaths

  1. Onoosh Gahagan

    Cris: Even though you like to dismantle what my husband refers to as “metaphysical crap,” and I’m the one about whom one of my philosophy profs in grad school muttered, in a disapproving undertone, “raving mystic…” I love your blog. Today’s piece was especially stimulating to the little grey cells, especially since, regarding the effects of the Full Moon, you agree with me. I’m also glad to see that someone else appreciated “Blade Runner.” At least…I think you did. Or…maybe not… Just keep writing, and keep me on my intellectual toes.

  2. Cris Post author

    I am glad you enjoy the blog and dismantlings that take place here from time to time. Thanks for the kind words. How can a person not appreciate “Blade Runner”? I rank it as perhaps the best film in history.

  3. Onoosh Gahagan

    You mean, it knocks “The Wizard of Oz” out of the running?

    Back to the Full Moon, though: I love it when science seems to validate my own preconceptions and anecdotal evidence. I’ve always leaned (or felt a tidal pull?) toward the idea that water is water, whether in the oceans or in ourselves.

    I’ve also always gravitated (stop it, Onoosh, before I have to slap you…) toward the Full Moon and its cycles. I remember feeling unsettled once, in a movie theater–the movie was lousy, anyway–and leaving hurriedly to confront a brilliant Moon over my little white Vespa. “Oh! sez I. This explains it.” Maybe it really did.

    Anyway, fluffy humanist though I may be, I am kept on the Good Red Road by good science, anthropology and archaeology. My husband, a political science guy, is grateful for this.

  4. Darryl Cooper

    “Even though you like to dismantle what my husband refers to as “metaphysical crap,” and I’m the one about whom one of my philosophy profs in grad school muttered, in a disapproving undertone, “raving mystic…” I love your blog. ”

    Haha, describes me to a tee as well.

  5. Sabio Lantz

    Pray tell, what did mean: “Perhaps this is an example of action at a distance or quantum entanglement.”

    Especially the part of quantum entanglement. I know nothing of quantum entanglement but I thought it had to do with connected properties between sub-atomic particles which were once physically close but now separated.

    I wrote here about my repulsion to Buddhism running to Quantum Theory to support their theories — this is a common move made by almost every religion — to grab whatever science they can to prove their point. I like sticking with empiricism and the sleep study is interesting, but all the other grabs at metaphors always seem so desperate to me.

  6. Cris Post author

    My point is simply that the science of the mind, consciousness, physics, and behaviors are in their relative infancies.

    What Einstein called spukhafte Fernwirkung is an empirically real effect, though we have no idea how it works. We may within the next few hundred years.

    Just as I’m not concerned about creationist/atheist debates, I’m not concerned that Buddhists (or anyone else) are citing quantum entanglement to support their empirically unsupported views, all of which are driven by personal feelings, emotions, cultural patterns, and other agendas.

    But quantum entanglement is empirically real, even if we don’t understand it.

    So who cares what kinds of spooks latch onto it?

  7. Sabio Lantz

    When trying to apply quantum entanglement observations, seen so far only in sub-atomic particles, to bread-basket-size objects, yet alone lunar sized objects is certainly spukhafte Fernwirkung or better yet, schlampige Wissenschaft of yet more infant fields like anthropology or religious studies.

    Yes, we are unsure of far more than we are certain, but to run to such terms is the temptation of those with agendas, not those committed to understanding how things work.

    I only pointed out the Buddhists stuff because it seems like you were trying to imply the same by jumping on one report of Moon affects on sleep, and implying, “Hey it could be quantum entanglement — see the animists were right.” Buddhism or New-Age Shamanism, it is all agenda to me. Just sayin’.

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