The phrase “counting sheep” originated in ancient Britain where shepherds would count their sheep before going to sleep. This practice has been passed down to help aid in sleep. However, researchers have questioned its effectiveness.
A study conducted by scientists at Oxford University divided insomniacs into groups and observed their attempts to fall asleep using different mental techniques. Some groups were told to count sheep, while others were given no instructions. On nights when all groups were instructed to imagine a calming scene, such as a beach, participants fell asleep an average of twenty minutes earlier than when counting sheep or not focusing on anything at all.
It is believed that counting sheep is too monotonous for our minds to stay engaged. More interesting and soothing tasks, like visualizing an ocean or forest scene, help keep our minds focused until sleep ensues. This relaxation of the mind allows our muscles to unwind and our breathing to deepen, promoting natural sleep.
However, counting sheep can still be an effective technique for some individuals who have an interest in or find sheep cute and calming. As Chris Idzikowsky from the Edinburgh Sleep Centre puts it, “I would suggest controlled breathing as a method, but counting sheep works as long as it doesn’t annoy you”.