This Chinese New Year (starting 19th February) is the year of the sheep. This got me thinking about ‘counting sheep’: why it’s said to help you fall asleep, where it originates from, and whether it actually helps.
The common idea is if you can’t sleep you should imagine a series of sheep jumping over a fence and count as they go. It seems like a logical activity to focus the brain on something repetitive, as with meditation – but where does the phrase come from and does it work?
Early origins in 17th century Britain
Early references to counting sheep to induce sleep can be found in literature dating back to the 1800s. An 1854 book by Seba Smith’s ‘Way down east; or portraitures of Yankee life’ cites: “He shut his eyes with all his might, and tried to think of sheep jumping over a wall.”
It’s easy to imagine how shepherds on long watches might have fallen asleep. Yan Tan Tethera is a sheep-counting rhyme system traditionally used by shepherds in England.
Counting sheep is too boring
According to an Oxford University experiment, counting sheep is actually too boring to induce sleep. People imagining a beach or waterfall were forced to expend more mental energy, and fell asleep faster than those asked to “simply distract from thoughts, worries and concerns.”
In a 2001 study published in the Journal of Behavior Research and Therapy asked participants to imagine “a situation they found interesting and engaging, but also pleasant and relaxing” which generated similar results: more detailed imagery distraction helped those with insomnia fall asleep faster.
Detailed sensory visualisation works best
Visualisation where you really engage all of the senses is a more effective method of relaxation. For example, imagine being in a beautiful meadow with the smell of eucalyptus trees, the sound of chirping birds and the feeling of warm grass beneath your feet. When we use visualization, especially when it is using all of our senses, it helps to slow down our brainwaves and achieve the delta brainwave state necessary for sleep. It also synchronises the left and right spheres of the brain, which aids with inducing sleep. I often get clients to imagine the next episode of their favourite TV series as this is more engaging and they’re already interested.