The Sheep-Counting Fallacy


Counting sheep: it’s so baked into our communal ideas of battling insomnia, it’s become a tired (ahem) cliché. Even Mickey Mouse counts sheep to try to fall asleep. But where did this cultural phenomenon come from? And does it work?

In Medieval Britain––and all the way up through the turn of the 20th century––shepherds using communal grazing pastures were required to count their sheep every night before literally “hitting the hay.” So that’s the origin. As to efficacy, well guess what? A 2002 study in present day Great Britain showed that counting sheep not only doesn’t induce sleep, those who count sheep actually fall asleep later than those who simply try to fall asleep sheep-less.

The good news is that mental visualization as treatment for insomnia does work, but it has to be the right kind of visualization. Instead of counting sheep––a stressful task just before bed––choose a single, simple image that is completely relaxing, such as a waterfall or a beautiful beach with lapping waves or a gorgeous mountain range as the sun quietly sets.


  • Chaudhry, S. (2002). Counting sheep will not help you sleep. BMJ, 324(Suppl S3), 020353a.