counting sheep

A distraction technique used to combat insomnia.

Insomnia has no doubt always been with us. People count sheep to relax is because it’s an activity that involves both sides of the brain: the visual – picturing the sheep, and the logical – counting in sequence. The mundane repetition helps people to relax. 

According to Disciplina Clericalis, a text written in early twelfth-century Spain, a king heard stories from his storyteller every night. One night the king did not feel like going to sleep and demanded extra stories. But the storyteller himself wanted to go to sleep and his  solution was to tell a story that required counting sheep. A farmer bought two thousand sheep and they were ferried in a small boat, two at a time, across a flooded river. The farmer needed to do that a thousand times in order to get all his sheep home. The storyteller fell asleep after the first two sheep crossed the river! 

About five centuries after Disciplina Clericalis was written, the counting-sheep story had a revival in Don Quixote.

A story from The Guardian in January 2002 quoted the New Scientist report that a cognitive psychologist tested that classic recipe of counting sheep for numbing thought and quelling anxiety. She and a colleague divided 50 volunteer insomniacs into three groups, proposed a strategy for each and monitored the rates at which eyelids closed and breathing became regular.

One group was asked to concentrate on a distraction such as counting Southdown ewes in a field, or Merino lambs hopping over a stile. One group was left to its own devices. And one was asked to focus on something tranquil, such as a waterfall, or being on holiday.

Those who imagined torpid afternoons in the south of France, or lazy twilights in the Tyrol, went to sleep on average 20 minutes earlier than they would normally. The sheep counters, and the ones who just lay there, wishing they could nod off, actually stayed awake for longer than usual.

So it would seem that counting sheep is not the solution to insomnia for everyone. I’d like to know why it has to be sheep. Perhaps the idea is that it would be nice to cuddle up to their soft, fuzzy wool. Or perhaps people think sheep are boring animals. Having never met any sheep, I wouldn’t know.

But whatever you do, don’t count cats. That will just keep you awake. Some may jump the fence, others will fall asleep, still others will go off in the opposite direction or start a fight. In the end, you’ll have hundreds of cats at your feet, all demanding a snack. Or breakfast, depending on how long you’ve been trying to keep track of them.

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