Counting sheep is a mental exercise used in some cultures as a means of putting oneself to sleep.
In most depictions of the activity, the practitioner envisions an endless series of identical white sheep jumping over a fence, while counting them as they do so. The idea, presumably, is to induce boredom while occupying the mind with something simple, repetitive, and rhythmic, all of which are known to help humans sleep.
Although the practice is largely a stereotype, and rarely used as a solution for insomnia, it has been so commonly referenced by cartoons, comic strips, and other mass media, that it has become deeply engrained into popular culture's notion of sleep. The term "counting sheep" has entered the English language as an idiomatic term for insomnia. Sheep themselves have become associated with sleep, or lack thereof.
The effectiveness of the method may depend upon the mental power required. An experiment conducted by researchers at Oxford University, though not involving livestock as the object of visualization, found that subjects who imagined "a beach or a waterfall" were forced to expend more mental energy, and fell asleep faster, than those asked to "simply distract from thoughts, worries and concerns."
I'm sure you're all familiar with the term, and how counting sheep works. But I grabbed the above information for the benifit of anyone who isn't, since I've learned not to assume that all popular cultural references are as well-known in other countries as they are in the one I know them from, if you know what I mean.
I've not mentioned it much in recent months, but, as anyone who's been reading my blog for a long time will know, I often have trouble sleeping. I've tried all the tricks that are meant to help you sleep, and have found that the repetitive mental exercises like counting sheep actually do work sometimes. At least, if the cause of my insomnia that night is just too much going on in my head. It's sort of like how focus on your breathing helps you get started when it comes to meditation.
Except, one night back in January, the sheep started bleating at me as they jumped, and it was getting on my nerves.
So I tried counting other things, and ended up counting dragons.
Apparently it's true that it's the repetitive exercise rather than the sheep, since I tried other things too, with similar results; some nights it works wonderfully, other times it doesn't. There appeared to be no pattern as to which things I counted would or wouldn't work; as long as I could imagine identical ones jumping, flying, walking, or floating by - depending what was appropriate for the creature, or object, in question - it seemed to be fine.
So, I just thought I'd let you know, in case you don't like sheep, or your sheep start annoying you with their bleating too, that you can count whatever you like when trying to sleep... Sheep, dragons, or whatever. There's no guarantee it will work, of course, but at least you now know for sure that you aren't limited to counting sheep, so can add some variety in to your counting exercises.
Also, meditating, or doing something else potentially relaxing, shortly before you try to sleep, can often help if you have trouble sleeping too. Again, it's not guaranteed, but it's worth trying.
Actually, as you probably already know, when it comes to things that are meant to help you sleep, they all work sometimes, but aren't guaranteed. After all, if they worked every time, nobody would suffer from insomnia, would they?
Of course, the big question now is... What do sheep count to get to sleep?