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The Debunker: Will Counting Sheep Help Me Fall Asleep?

by Ken Jennings

April has been Mathematics Awareness Month since 1999, making this the nineteenth time it's been observed. Wait, that's not right. The twentieth time. To celebrate our mathematical awareness, or lack thereof, Ken Jennings of Jeopardy! will be with us all month debunking all the popular misinformation about numbers that you thought once you could count on.

The Debunker: Will Counting Sheep Help Me Fall Asleep?

Great, this is the first "Debunker" column ever where the title question rhymes! But just like every other "Debunker," the title question has the same answer: No. No, it probably won't.

The old wives' tale about "counting sheep" probably dates back to a simpler, more agrarian time when worries about the safety of his livestock might keep a farmer up nights. Counting sheep, a reassuring way to visualize that his flock is all accounted for, would be just the ticket to stop worrying about marauding coyotes, and to nod off. Or is "counting sheep" just shorthand for any repetitive mental task, one so boring it might put you to sleep?

Either way, we now have empirical evidence to deflate the conventional wisdom about ovine enumeration. In 2001, an Oxford University team had fifty insomniacs try different techniques to see which got them snoring sooner. On nights when they were instructed to think of a calm, relaxing scene—enjoying a vacation, visiting a waterfall—the subjects fell asleep twenty minutes faster than they did on nights when they were asked to visualize a mental distraction, like counting sheep.

What's wrong with picturing sheep jumping over a fence? It's too boring, according to sleep scientists. "Counting sheep is just too mundane to effectively keep worries away," one theorized. If you're up late tonight, leave the sheep in the paddock and just let your mind wander to whatever you find pleasant. Put your imagination to work on you, rather than on ewes.

Quick Quiz: There's only one story in the Bible about counting sheep. In Matthew 18, how many sheep does the shepherd leave in the wilderness to go after the one who is missing?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.