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Counting sheep is a mental exercise used in some European and American cultures as a means of lulling 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 the number that 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. It may also simulate Rapid Eye Movement, tiring people's eyes.

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. For example, an ad campaign of the Serta mattress company features the Serta Counting Sheep, a flock of animated sheep with numbers on them who resent the said company's mattresses for supposedly rendering their services unnecessary.

According to an experiment conducted by researchers at Oxford Universitymarker, counting sheep is actually an inferior means of inducing sleep. Subjects who instead imagined "a beach or a waterfall" were forced to expend more mental energy, and fell asleep faster than those asked to simply count sheep. Sleep, by the same token, could be achieved by any number of complex activities that expend mental energy.

An early reference to counting sheep as a means of attaining sleep can be found in Illustrations of Political Economy by Harriet Martineau, from 1832:

"It was a sight of monotony to behold one sheep after another follow the adventurous one, each in turn placing its fore-feet on the breach in the fence, bringing up its hind legs after it, looking around for an instant from the summit, and then making the plunge into the dry ditch, tufted with locks of wool. The process might have been more composing if the field might have been another man's property, or if the flock had making its way out instead of in; but the recollection of the scene of transit served to send the landowner to sleep more than once, when occurring at the end of the train of anxious thoughts which had kept him awake." (355-356)

In India and Pakistan, the phrase synonymous to counting sheep is counting the stars.

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