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Sleep Tips

Where Did the Expression 'Counting Sheep' Come From?

An illustrations of a man lying in bed with imaginary sheep surrounding him.
Leo Medrano

People in search of sleep will try practically anything to nod off at night and catch some much-needed zzz’s. But perhaps the oldest trick in the book is the simple act of counting sheep.

Closing your eyes to visualize a never-ending herd of fluffy white animals may be a seemingly ‘baa’-zarre way to drift off, but there may be something to it.

“Counting sheep is a simple exercise that requires some mild focus (counting) along with visualization,” says Shelby Harris, NYC-based sleep psychologist and author of “The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia.”. “That combination helps prevent the busy brain from intruding as fast as it might normally do, helping to quiet and calm the brain to set the stage for sleep.”

Of course, nothing will take the place of developing consistent sleep habits like eliminating blue light one hour before closing your eyes, maintaining a consistent bedtime, and keeping the bedroom at a cool temperature, but where did the “counting sheep” expression come from? And is there science behind its use?

The internet yields a few interesting theories and results. Read on:

The History of Counting Sheep

According to Mental Floss, counting sheep can be attributed to shepherds in medieval Britain who utilized a special counting system to keep track of their flocks before sleeping at night.

“It went by the catchy name of ‘yan, tan, tethera,’ and shepherds kept using it until the turn of the 20th century,” the outlet reveals, though the expression’s foundation may date back even further.

Disciplina Clericalis, a 12th-century book of fables, suggests that counting sheep had already been a cultural trope in Islamic culture for centuries,” Mental Floss also reports.

The story alleges that a king demanded stories from his personal storyteller on a night when he refused to sleep, but the storyteller himself wanted to go to sleep and decided to tell him a tale about a farmer who went to a market and bought 2,000 sheep. These 2,000 sheep had to be transported across a flooded river, but there was only a small boat on shore that could carry two at a time. Mathematically, the farmer would be required to complete this process a thousand times over and, as the storyteller began to tell this part of the story, he fell asleep, much to the king’s dismay, and was immediately woken up to continue. The story was so repetitive and mundane that it successfully lulled the king to sleep.

But Does Counting Sheep Work?

Counting sheep may have worked for our fabled storyteller, but there is modern-day proof that the act could do the opposite.

“Engaging the brain in a relaxing, repetitive task slows the mind and stops our racing stressful thoughts from taking over,” Hilary Thompson, health and wellness consultant for SleepTrain, tells Reader’s Digest. “Unfortunately, counting sheep is not one of these helpful tasks. Researchers at Oxford University put it to the test and discovered that subjects who pictured running waterfalls and rivers were able to fall asleep much more quickly.”

The act of counting can apparently be a bit too taxing on the brain, while envisioning consistent imagery that doesn’t require an activity (like the aforementioned bodies of water) is a more effective solution. This is why audio aides like ASMR, which offer hours-long tracks with repetitive, relaxing noises, have proven to be successful. The sleeper’s only responsibility is to listen.

Alternatives to Counting Sheep

Sleep remedies obviously vary person by person. What may work for some may be a total disaster for others, which is why it’s important to give yourself the time, patience and grace to experiment with different options.

Over the course of 2021, rounded up the 12 top sleeping tips to keep in mind before you shut off the lights to get some much-needed shut-eye. Recommendations include journaling, a hot bath, and even placing a pillow underneath your knees for extra support.

Should you find yourself tossing and turning, it won’t hurt to test any of these ideas—counting sheep included. Just keep in mind that if you hit the 1,000 mark (like in the original 12th-century story), it’s probably wise to move on to a more useful solution.

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