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Apr 22, 2010

Does Counting Sheep Really Help You Fall Asleep?

As far as we can tell, the idea of counting sheep to get to sleep might go back to ancient shepherds, who had to literally count their sheep every night before turning in, to make sure they were all there. Given the timing and the monotony of the task, someone eventually gave it a shot as a sleep aid and it caught on.

But does it work? Not according to researchers at Oxford University. Allison G. Harvey and Suzanna Payne, from the university’s Department of Experimental Psychology, conducted a study where volunteer insomniacs were monitored as they tried different distraction techniques for falling asleep over several nights.1

Harvey and Payne found that subjects took longer than usual to fall asleep on the nights they were instructed to count sheep, or were not told to do anything. When the insomniacs were told to distract themselves with a relaxing scene like a quiet beach, a walk in the woods, a massage, etc., though, they fell asleep 20 minutes sooner, on average, than they did when sheep counting or doing nothing. Harvey and Payne concluded that counting sheep is just too boring to do for very long, but a more engrossing distraction, like the detailed images of relaxing beaches, occupies enough “cognitive space” to keep people from engaging with too many other thoughts or worries.



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