William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Lightning May Cause Headaches, Moon May Cause Domestic Intranquility

Headaches are a comin’!

I have discovered a statistically significant correlation between phases of the moon and domestic harmony.

Every day for several months I filled out the Domestic Harmony Inventory (DHI), a scientifically valid instrument—questionnaires are only scientifically valid if they are called “instruments.” This consisted of asking myself how many times I was corrected for misbehavior each twenty-four period. This produced a number, and numbers are susceptible to mathematical manipulation, which is always desirable.

I concurrently used the Konica Minolta LS-100 Luminance Meter to measure moonglow in so many lumens per square yard. Lumens have previously been shown by fMRI to be important in predicting many psychological phenomenon (see reference list). I entered the lumens and number of corrections into a spreadsheet and then subjected to them to a computer model, which told me that the correlation between the two was statistically significant (p < 0.001).

Future research is needed to determine whether this same correlation is identical between races or whether there are disparities, which there probably are.

The Nobel committee may contact me using this web form.

Similar work was conducted by the team led by Geoffrey Martin. They published the peer-reviewed article “Lightning and its association with the frequency of headache in migraineurs: An observational cohort study” in the journal Cephalagia.

News organizations, always alert for clever sounding press releases, heard of the study and secured this quote from Martin: “this study very clearly shows a correlation between lightning, associated meteorological factors and headaches.” There you go.

Migraine sufferers from Ohio (23) and Missouri (67) recorded headache days on which they had headaches, over a period of “three to six months.” The folks from Ohio were all women. Pains where taken to insure they had “regular menstrual periods every 25–35 days” (there’s that phase of the moon again). Only the participants zip codes were known “in order to avoid disclosure of protected health information.” Why this privacy concern? Strikes me that if you can get a woman to disclose when she’s having her period, she won’t be so protective over her address

Lightning data consisted of “location, current, and polarity” and whether the strikes were cloud-to-ground. Lightning strikes had to be withing twenty-five scientifically determined miles of the zip codes to count, because this “was an
area that an individual patient would most likely reside in throughout a day.” At least there is acknowledgement the patient might not be anywhere near her zip code

For fun, they also measured “dry bulb temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction, barometric pressure, and precipitation” and solar insolation. And since they were really into it, they calculated CAPE (convective available potential energy) and the Lifting Index (which is CAPE-like). Reading this paper I had pleasant flashbacks of sketching atmospheric profiles on pseudo-adiabatic charts.

Then came the computer modeling. They used “GEE”, which stands for generalized estimating equation, and which is a technique for frequentists to act like Bayesians without having to admit it. GEEs, though wonderfully complicated, weren’t enough, so they also had a go with principal component analysis, a method which allows scientists to expand the number of their conclusions.

Wee p-values showed that lightning strikes were correlated with headache days. More fascinating was the discovery “The probability of having a headache on lightning days was also further increased when the average current of lightning strikes for the day was more negative.” Oh, all those other meteorological variables turned out duds. At least they tried.

Understand, it wasn’t the frequency of lightning strikes that was correlated to headaches, but only whether a day had any lightning strikes. It only took one: more than one had no additional effect. Paradoxical results like this are what tell you that you are in the presence of science.

How does lightning zaps skulls? Nobody knows. Might be “electromagnetic waves” (“low-level magnetic fields are able to induce changes on electroencephalograms”; possibly even on fMRIs). Could be ozone or “ions”. Or even—the mind reels—”induction of fungal spores.” I read this paper carefully and have determined the word “induction” was not meant as a cute pun.

I can’t speak for these sufferers, of course, but lightning has always cheered me up. I love a good storm. Far from causing headaches, brilliant flashes and loud booms cause pleasure in me. But then I don’t have regular periods.

Thanks to Al and Ann Perrella for the pointer.

13 Comments

  1. The article discusses “migraineurs” though presumably those in Ohio should have been denominated “migraineuses”.

    Now I have suffered three migraines in my life, sorry 3 (for later manipulation). I had no headache at all on any occasion. I believe this is not uncommon. So I’m left wondering how many migraineurs and migraineueses suffered visual phenomena, as I did, and how this was related to lightning strikes, if at all.

    More research needed, clearly.

  2. I have what the medical community now calls “chronic migraine” (meant to make women feel better about headaches that frequently cannot be helped but women get touch if you don’t name every health concern out there–I don’t a find a name helps). Since I don’t live where there’s a lot of lightening, I’m pretty sure this means lightening is not the only correlation/cause out there.
    It is interesting that they threw in periods (which for years had NO effect according to medicine), and a half a dozen other phenomena.
    It’s a cute study. However, since we can’t really stop lightening, how does this help? :)

  3. Sheri,

    If lighting affected migraines by EM, static electric or magnetic effects a migraine sufferers could in theory protect themselves by building a Faraday cage shelter.

  4. Lumens have previously been shown by fMRI to be important in predicting many psychological phenomenon (see reference list).

    This must be true. I was in the dark once and didn’t like it. After I acquired some lumens I began to see the light and felt better.

    Of course, the other things that come along with lightening, pressure and humidity changes for example, would have nothing to do with migraines. Once, when flying home from Georgia, I went through a really bumpy cloud full of lightening and began to develop a headache which persisted for the next 10 miles. My impression it was the idea that the thunderstorm might rip the wings off the plane (talk about p-factor) was the cause but now it’s clear that it was merely the lightening despite my being inside a Faraday shield.

  5. Of course, lightening should have been spelled lightning. Maybe I have lumens on the brain.

  6. “But then I don’t have regular periods.” I bet you do. Regular periods of sleep, eating, exercise. OK, maybe not exercise.

  7. MattS: I was hopeful! Then Dave came along and noted the plane functioning as a Faraday shield wasn’t effective in his case. Drat. Maybe more research, right? Interesting observations here.

  8. Can you really draw any valid conclusion with only 90 test subjects and no controls? Shpulden’t there have been 90 control subjects who were kept away from ligntening strikes far a comparison of migraine frequency?

  9. Ye Olde Statistician

    1 February 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Yes, “lightening” is what you do by off-loading cargo. You do this with a lighter.

  10. Crud. I can’t get data that should correlate to do so. Damn reality! Damn electrons!

  11. Bill S

    Fear not! According to our host Mr. Briggs if you beat your data with a stick long enough you will be able to get a wee p-value. And if that doesn’t work try using a different stick.

  12. The lightning thing was wonderful and now I have to tell my doctor she was wrong. I get headaches which she said was caused by pressure changes, too many or too rapid changes in atmospheric pressure such as when high and low pressure fronts meet in my locale are (by her incorrect theory) causing problems with my sinuses. As anyone who managed to stay awake during the meteorology period of their education knows, lightning is most common in cold fronts, which are accompanied by pressure changes. Obviously my doctor has confused correlation with causation and it is not the change in pressure which occurs at the same time as lighting causing my headaches, but the lightning itself which is causing them.

    Without the sarcasm, it is pretty widely accepted that pressure changes can cause headaches. It is also pretty widely accepted that pressure changes frequently accompany lightning. One would expect to find a correlation between lightning frequency and headache frequency without lightning causing headaches, both headaches and lightning are caused by the intersection of air masses.

  13. Personally, I discovered in 1996, when living in Texas, that I got very bad headaches in the build up to an electrical storm – so much so that I could forecast them with a pretty good degree of success. Sometimes the headaches/migraines were very intense. As soon as the storm “broke”, the headaches disappeared – relief all round, especially for the wife, as it made me extremely grumpy…

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