We all heard it growing up, if you want to fall asleep quickly, count sheep. Usually, people picture sheep jumping over a fence, one by one, and this counting it supposed to soothe a person into a deep slumber. But does it actually work?
Well, the short answer is no. It doesn’t.
The phrase originated from a 12th century book of fables, Disciplina Clericalis. The book contains a chapter in which to get the king to fall asleep, a storyteller talks about sheep and the second he does, the storyteller himself falls asleep. In ancient times, Shepherds had to keep track of their flock by counting sheep constantly and it was thought to be such a boring task that it would put a person to sleep. Since then, the times have changed as well as the validity of this tactic. Scientists at Oxford University did a study in which 41 insomniacs were split into groups. Some were told to count sheep to fall asleep, some weren’t told to think of anything specifically and the others were told to picture a relaxing scene, such as a beach. They found that the people who pictured nothing or had to count sheep didn’t have any improvement in falling asleep, but the people told to picture a relaxing environment fell asleep much quicker than the others. There are a few flaws to this study, one being that you can’t actually make anyone picture or think about what you tell them to. You can give a person instructions but in this case, the scientists can’t be sure that the subject followed them. But the more I searched, the more I realized there was no evidence to counting sheep helping sleep and lots of evidence to imagery helping sleep. So this is odd, why is such a widely believed wives’ tale appear to be false? Perhaps it’s because counting sheep is such a mundane task that people can’t do it for very long and the impulse to have to revert back to it keeps the mind occupied and therefore, unable to fall asleep. Michael Decker, Ph.D., thinks counting sheep may not work because keeping track of them is work. This work may stimulate the mind and in turn, make a person unable to fall asleep. Keeping the brain active while trying to fall asleep has proven more harmful than helpful.
So if counting sheep isn’t the way to do it then the question has to be asked, what does make a person fall asleep? Well, many suggest that imagining a calm scene helps a lot. But what else? Something most people do right before bed that can be a huge inhibitor of sleep is looking at a screen. Even more than counting sheep, a screen stimulates the brain and keeps it active, telling itself “there’s light, so it’s time to be up and awake!” Giving the body time before sleep with no screens or distractions is very helpful. Clinical psychologist, Janet Kennedy suggests taking a full hour before bed time to settle down the mind and body. This time is supposed to help the body transition from day to night.
It seems winding down the body and mind (picturing calming scenery, not looking at bright light) is the best way to ensure falling asleep but many people don’t have the luxury of time to wind down. Going from day to night quickly, light to no light, can be shocking to the body. Most modern humans have artificial light in their lives (their homes, offices, stores, etc.) and it triggers the mind to stay awake during biologically unnatural hours (humans are supposed to be asleep at night). Turning lights off abruptly and ordering the body to rest may be a harsh way to get introduced into a night’s sleep. How does one fix this? Evidence suggests that practicing imagery and calming breathing exercises throughout the day actually helps one fall asleep at night. If a person can remain tranquil during the day, with light constantly surrounding them, the transition into the night and darkness is much easier. Our bodies are not as easily manipulated as we may think and sometimes we need to train ourselves into certain behaviors. Falling asleep is definitely one of these behaviors that many people need help with.
I may have gotten a little off topic there and of course, these tactics aren’t a way to always ensure a good night’s sleep. There are many confounding variables that can determine how well a person can fall asleep (ex. uncontrollable noise or light in the room one is trying to sleep in, physical pain at the time of sleep) but the integral concept remains. Keeping the mind active at night, even just the simple act of counting sheep, can really hinder sleep. The best way to prevent this is to give yourself time before falling asleep to relax and even stay relaxed throughout the day. Remember this when you just can’t seem to get to sleep!