The phrase “counting sheep” in the context of a ritual done before sleep actually has its origins in ancient Britain. Shepherds needed to count their sheep, to make sure each one of the herd was present and accounted for, before the shepherds could bed down for the night. As with expressions of speech that have their beginnings in the remote past, this tallying system has come down to us as an aid to help us sleep.
Does counting sheep help us to go to sleep? Quite a few researchers have their doubts.
According to the journal Behavior Research and Therapy, scientists at Oxford University recruited insomniacs and separated them into groups. These groups were monitored as they attempted various mental techniques to put themselves to sleep. On different nights, some groups were instructed to try counting sheep as a distraction from thoughts preventing sleep, and other groups were given no instructions at all.
However, on the nights when all groups were separately instructed to imagine a soothing, more engrossing scene, such as a beach, the subjects fell asleep an average of twenty minutes sooner than they had when they were counting sheep, or concentrating on nothing at all.
Scientists suspect that the mental task of counting sheep is just too boring for our minds to stay fixed on it for long. More complex and pleasant tasks, such as imagining an ocean or forest scene, for example, helps our minds keep focused until they are eventually lulled off to sleep.
With our minds not focused on stressful thoughts, our muscles relax and we breathe more deeply, and sleep naturally happens to us.
This is not to say, however, that counting sheep to fall asleep is not a very effective technique for some. People interested in sheep, or who find them extremely cute and soothing, may use the old Cumbrian and Yorkshire sheep-tally system to their advantage.
Perhaps it was put best by Chris Idzikowsky at the Edinburgh Sleep Centre: “I’d actually go for controlled breathing as a mechanism, but counting sheep is as good as long as it doesn’t irritate you.”