Counting Sheep May Not Work After All

The next time you have trouble sleeping, you might not want to bother calling out the mental sheep. A recent study from Oxford University in England studied the effectiveness of sheep-counting and found the technique lacking.

Fifty insomniacs participated in the sleep study, which focused on distraction techniques. One group counted sheep; a second group was asked to visualize a relaxing, peaceful scene. A third group was given no instructions at all. Who fell asleep the fastest? The visualization group was the first in dreamland, by an average of twenty minutes.

Why did the good old counting sheep let the sleep study volunteers down? It seems that counting sheep is just too boring. If the brain isn’t engaged, other thoughts — like the stress and worries that can cause insomnia in the first place — have a chance to take hold. Spending your mental energy on a tranquil scene is more engaging and let the study volunteers fall asleep faster.

What kind of scene works best? It depends on your own preference, really. The next time you’re having trouble sleeping, try these:

  • Picture yourself sitting on a wide, empty beach at sunset. The white sand sparkles, and the last of the day’s light shimmers on the water. The waves whoosh rhythmically against the shore and the sky is full of wispy clouds and dazzling colors.
  • Imagine walking down a forest path, leaves and twigs crunching beneath your feet. Tall pine trees surround you, and you can hear the soft chirping of birds. A clearing opens up and you are at the edge of a pool at the base of a tall waterfall. The air fills with mist and your ears fill with the sound of rushing water.

The more detail you can put in, the better — as long as you stick with pleasant, relaxing images. A busy highway or crowded shopping mall probably isn’t going to help your brain relax. You may also find that recorded “white noise” — like the sound of the ocean or a babbling brook — helps you picture the scene more fully. As an added benefit, the white noise can drown out other sounds that might keep you awake.