Sheep No Longer Employed for Sleepless Nights

adopted from CNN, January 24, 2002

Researchers at Oxford University in London, England have discovered that the traditional cure for sleeplessness, which is believed to date back to the early 19th century, does not work because it is just too boring to fully distract the mind from problems and concerns.

In a recent experiment, 50 insomniacs were asked to try different techniques to see which helped them to fall asleep more quickly. The first group imagined a relaxing, tranquil scene like a waterfall or a beach; the second group tried counting sheep; a third were left to use their strategies.

Those who conjured up the relaxing scene fell asleep more than 20 minutes earlier than if they did nothing. Those who counted sheep and the controls took slightly longer than normal to drop off.

“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,” reported Allison Harvey, who co-conducted the study with Suzanna Payne, to New Scientist magazine in which details of the research were published in January, 2002.

However, the researchers found that a new method for beating insomnia, “thought suppression,” was also ineffective. The idea is to block an anxious or negative thought by burying it as soon as it occurs to achieve a relaxed state of mind that leads to sleep. Dr. Harvey found that the “suppression” group took 10 minutes longer to nod off than if they did nothing. These results replicated a psychological study in which telling someone not to think about polar bears only encourages them to think even more about them.

One in 10 people suffer from chronic insomnia, and scientists estimate that sleeplessness costs the U.S. economy $35 billion a year in absenteeism and accidents.

“These studies represent an innovative approach to the management of insomnia,” sleep researcher Charles Morin, from Laval University, Quebec, told New Scientist.

Morin said the finding about the suppression technique did not surprise him. “The more you fight those intrusive thoughts, the more they want to come back.” Tackling the underlying source of worry is the only solution to insomnia, he recommended.