In today's world we have lots of sleep aides like Tempur-Pedic beds and, uh, Ambien. But if you're still using the bore-yourself-to-sleep method, some bad news is coming down the pike: Counting sheep doesn't work.
The sleep/sheep enthusiasts over at Modern Farmer unearthed an Oxford University study from 2001 that split 50 insomniacs into three groups and had them visualize different things before bed. One group imagined tranquil scenes like waterfalls, one imagined sheep jumping over a fence, and one did their own thing and acted as a control.
People in the first group who were imagining calm scenes got to sleep 20 minutes faster than they did on other nights, and participants in the group that had to count sheep actually took longer than usual to fall asleep. Allison Harvey, one of the study authors, noted that, "Picturing an engaging scene takes up more brain space than the same dirty old sheep. Plus it's easier to stay with it because it's more interesting."
Bret Taylor, who works at the USDA's Sheep Experiment Station (because of course that exists) doesn't endorse sheep counting. He told Modern Farmer that, "I tried counting sheep once and no, it did not help me fall asleep. It's hard to imagine sheep jumping a fence because it is not something they do unless you don't want them to." Maybe the problem for hundreds of years has been the inaccuracies in this visualization technique. Next time someone tells you that they know a great way to get to sleep, demand a fact check. [Modern Farmer]