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Habits the Dream: An Artists method out of madness

Every morning, I sit in the middle of my apartment’s living room. I am between my studio space and the beginning of our general entertainment space. The TV, my paints, tan easel, green studio lights, dining room table, board and card games, console controllers, communal computer, and the living room furniture – they’re all in the same room. I’ve had the same setup in nearly every place I have ever lived in my entire adult life. Honestly, the mess isn’t charming. I get embarrassed sometimes when company comes to visit. However, over the years, I have found that sharing a communal space with my sprawling chaos benefits my creative process. This massive room is the usual epicentre of our current apartment, and it’s also the lifeblood of my most vivid daydreams.

In the TV show The Big Bang Theory, the writer Chuck Lorre often highlights Sheldon’s proclivities and his unwillingness to share, especially his spot. In the TV show, Sheldon has called eternal dibs on his central axis point. It’s on the left side of the couch. If any other character tries to sit in his area, he gets emotionally upset, astonishingly annoying and sometimes even a bit nasty.

Sheldon and I share the same values when it comes to our bottoms’ preferred spot. Our area is unquestionably claimed until death or forever – whichever comes first. When someone tries to sit in my space, I’m nearly as territorial as Sheldon because it’s my trigger location for artistry. It’s my dream space. During this daydream period, I’m often rehearsing how I will complete art projects and overcome obstacles. This is similar to what’s explained in the video by Amy Adkins, Why Do We Dream?, ‘We Dream to Rehearse’ (Atkins 3:16-432, 2015), and ‘We Dream to Remember’ (Adkins 1:19-1:58, 2015). In the video Atkins references the 2010 Dreaming of a Learning Task study written by Robert Stickgold. Stickgolds’ study supports my notion of why habits are remarkably relevant to the dream process. Atkins explains: “Subjects were much better at getting through a complex 3-D maze if they had napped and dreamed of the maze prior to their second attempt. In fact, they were up to 10 times better at it than those who only thought of the maze while awake between attempts, and those who napped but did not dream about the maze.” (Atkins, 1:27-1:48, 2015), (Stickgold, Dreaming of a Learning Task). I strongly feel we need to create times and places to provide that allow our cerebral cortices to be at rest, allowing them the opportunity to decompress through the act of daydreaming or sleeping. These actions enable our psyche to clarify our plans and help us remember our next schematic steps towards the completion of projects.

As a child, I grew up suffering from a plethora of learning disorders that made my school experience miserable. Like Sheldon, I have always enjoyed learning. Unlike him, my grades suffered from a conventional learning experience. I needed to find strategies that would create positive provocations to support my learning style. I also needed to be seeking environments which allowed me to daydream and supportive experiences to boost my prolific artistic nature. Until I was in my mid- to late-twenties, I was unaware that I could capitalise on my daydreams, and train my learning disorders to work for me instead of against me.

Consequently, as a child, I had insomnia. I produced late or unfinished homework in grade school. I was also often scolded by my teachers or parents for not paying attention, also known as daydreaming. I needed methods to stop my fear of failure from inhibiting my creative nature.

Over the years, I found organising strategies that helped me control certain disorders, such as my ADHD and ADD. For instance, I had one style of matching tableware. Everything in the apartment was colour coded. Kitchen red. Studio green. Bedroom shades of black. I found if I stocked the refrigerator and storage closets according to size shape and colour, I would be less distracted. I created rules. I moved things around our dominion. I drove my husband mad with my insistence that all items must match. I did all of this to create a less stimulating and more productive environment.

You see, part of having these disorders means I can’t settle if things are too stimulating. Which results in a lack of sleep or daydreams. Much like the ‘We Dream to Heal’ (Atkins 3:52-437) argument from the Why Do We Dream? (Atkins, 2015) video, ‘People with disorders and PTSD have difficulty sleeping due to a lack of dreaming.’ I relate to this statement because sleep eludes me if I don’t create a space or make the time to let my mind wander during the day. I can’t dream appropriately if I am distracted or overstimulated by an expresso cup which doesn’t match the kitchen pattern. Or an untidy house with laundry strewn around the dwelling willy-nilly. It’s too exciting for my brain. I will do something impulsive. My thoughts will shamble to dysfunctional flimflam. Then I experience massive amounts of stress that destabilise my positive dwaal dream state. (Dwaal is an Afrikaans dream state which can refer to a productive dreamy haze, or negatively as a state of absentmindedness.)

I also have mild to moderate OCD. This condition can have negative effects on my attention deficit hyperactive disorder and attention dyslexic disorder. The latter two, ADD and ADHD, mean I have trouble completing things because my mind is so busy bouncing from one thought to the next in a negative dwaal dream state. With obsessive-compulsive disorder, however, I become increasingly obsessed with completing the task before me. But I cannot finish because the other two maladies, ADD and ADHD, are fighting for the steering wheel like bad mash-ups. Meanwhile, my imaginary car is driving sixty-one million and a half miles an hour. At any moment, we may plunge off the cliff of happiness into the land of black brouhaha.

If I allow my dysfunctions to take over, I cannot complete tasks because of overstimulation. When this happens, I get cranky and manic. I know this, so I use the first disorder (OCD) to control the structure around my dwaal dream state created by my ADD and ADHD.

In this way, I have learned to utilise my OCD to focus on the things I know will create a vessel for the field of dreaming procured by my ADHD and ADD. If I daydream, I sleep. If I sleep, I dream about my work. If I dream about my commitments, I am more likely to finish a task I’m undertaking. It’s the kind of healing discussed in the Why Do We Dream? video when Atkins suggests, ‘Stress in the neurotransmitters of the brain are less active when the mind is in the REM state of sleep.’ (Atkins. 3:53-4:10, 2015).

A few years ago, I read a book called The Power of Habit written by Charles Duhigg. In this book, Duhigg explains the reasons behind the methods of my dwaal dream madness. The Power of Habit clarified for me why I used the strengths of my OCD to create the road rules of my imaginary purple dream car. Why my ADHD and ADD needed speed limits, like routines, to ensure my natural tendency to enter dwaal was productive. Why in the past, when I allowed my ADD and ADHD to run wild with no structure, they worked against my OCD, to my depressing dismay. The basics of the book state we all have habits that are started by triggers. Our cerebellum doesn’t know the difference between good habits and bad ones; it just craves completion.

When we create a habit, the first thing we do is take an action which generates a trigger. After our brain has registered the trigger, like sitting on the couch, it sends a signal to our minds. This signal gives our brains craving for completion. Once the habit is complete, our grey matter rewards us with drugs like dopamine that naturally occur in our neural system. Duhigg’s book explains this behavioural science phenomenon in better detail. (Duhigg, According to Duhigg’s research, when my bottom touches that dented cushion on the right side of the couch, it is a trigger. When my brain registers the this trigger it begins to think creatively and start a productive dwaal dream state.

During the YouTube video, Adkins references the American author John Steinbeck, who states that ‘the community of sleep demonstrates its effectiveness in problem-solving’. (Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday, p180)

Taking Steinbeck’s advice to heart, when I sit down and am quiet for at least 40 seconds. I start to put the ‘committee of sleep’ to work, actively or subconsciously. Once I act out the problems solved in my daydreams, my mind will send me a small drug jolt, coercing my brain’s natural addiction. This low dose of dopamine will flow through my encephalon, ensuring I will complete my current task. Once the whole project is complete, my mind will flood my nerve receptors with even more drugs, creating my need for my next fix. This more massive dose ensures that I’ll do it again, thus making a habit.

The drug dopamine is natural. It’s made by our bodies. Dopamine is quite essential for normal encephalon function. However, for people like me, with learning disorders- it’s crucial. Actually, dopamine has a lot to do with our superhero to villain status. The unique learning styles of dyslexia, ADHD, ADD, and OCD have dopamine superpowers when they are in the zone. However, they have evil twin dopamine that weakens them too. It has all to do with our neuro-receptors.

You see, the drug dopamine sends a feeling to our neuro-receptors that in essence, says: “That’s good. Do it again!”

My less responsive neuro-receptors, unfortunately, frustrate my brain’s primary insurance plan. When my mind tries to send me the goodies, my rectors say: “That’s goo... Hey! A Butterfly! It’s so pretty! Ohhh. Oh! Sorry brain. What were you saying? I forgot.” My pons is absolutely flummoxed. This is my evil depravation dopamine villain.

But! There is a beneficial trade-off in the heroes versus the villain’s dopamine race. When my neuro-receptors ignore my brains natural insurance plan, it can activate my disability dopamine superpower.

Unlike an average person, when I finish a project—my neuro-receptors bust the dopamine drought that has been plaguing my brains insurance plan. My brain is more flooded with dopamine when each assignment is evolved to its ending than the average person. This means those people like me with these kinds of learning disorders are more capable than others to have multiple projects going at once. When we are in a structured zone that allows us to dream, our output of completed tasks is usually more extensive than the average person. We are like Henry Ford’s assembly line before the dawn of the American industrial age.

This is why structure, daily routines, and focusing on fabulous habits - like sitting in my daydream space are so vital to my mental health and overall productivity. It ensures that I fully complete my habits, and I get my daily dreamy river flow of dopamine.

My spot of perpetual entitlement would be at the right-hand side of the couch. Between the first and second seat available when you enter the room. I feel that daydreaming needs a ‘nutrient bath’, to quote Steven King’s essay Symbolic Language of Dreams. I’m famously fussy about sharing this space. When I am entertaining guests. Numbing on sushi while watching TV. Or hanging with my husband while he plays video games - my brain is at rest. It’s inactively imagining and dreaming at the same time. I get more eureka moments if I sit there because that’s where my brain knows it’s time to dream in the dopamine train.

Stephen King even alludes to this in his essay The Symbolic Language of Dreams when he says, ‘Whether you’re dreaming, or you’re [actively] writing creatively, the brainwaves are interchangeable’. (King, essay in Dreams and Inward Journeys pp 4-10).

It doesn’t matter if you’re actively or passively in the ‘dream state’. If I am creating, the same circumstances stimulate my brain to crave dreaming. I’ll dream, which means I am consciously or unconsciously solving my problems. Atkins’ Why We Dream? video often coincides with my central values and notions of the dwaal dream state. I believe it’s essential to the creative process. If we use our minds’ compulsion to habitually achieve completion as our benefactor, we will be whole because when we dream, we trigger the dopamine superpower inside all of us. Habit is the dream.

Citations and Outside Sources

The Power of Habit- Book

Duhigg, Charles. New York. “The Power of Habit” Random House Trade Paperbacks, ‎ February 7, 2013.

Quick book reference-Authors Notes and Readers Aid Web Page

“The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life & Business. 2016–2020.”

The Big Bang Theory- TV show

Lorrie, Chuck. The Big Bang Theory. CBS. September 24, 2007- May 16, 2019. Warner Bros Studios in Burbank, California.

The Symbolic Language of Dreams- Essay

King, Stephen. “The Symbolic Language of Dreams”. Dreams and Inward Journeys, Katharine Glynn. Pearson, 2008, pp 4-10.

Support of my colour organisation strategies after the essay was written-

Colour vision in ADHD- Study

Soyeon Kim. “Colour vision in ADHD: Part 1 - Testing the retinal dopaminergic hypothesis”. The National Centre for Biotechnology. Behav Brain Funct. 2014; 10: 38. Published online 2014 October 24. DOI: 10.1186/1744-9081-10-38.

“Females with ADHD were less accurate in discriminating blue and red colour saturation relative to controls but did not differ in contrast sensitivity. Female control participants were better at discriminating red saturation than males, but no sex difference was present within the ADHD group.”

Driven to Distraction- Book series

Edward M. Hallowell, John J. Ratey. “Driven to Distraction”. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994-2011.

Amy Adkins Citations

Why Do We Dream? - YouTube TedEd video

Addison Anderson “Why Do We Dream?” TedEd. December 10, 2015.

Why Do We Dream? - Transcript – Direct quote from the transcript was used. I give full credit to Atkins

Atkins, Amy. “Why Do We Dream?”. TedEd. December 10, 2015, The Singju Post.

The study referenced by Amy Atkins-

Stickgold, Robert. Et. “Dreaming of a Learning Task is Associated with Enhanced Sleep-Dependent Memory Consolidation” The National Centre for Biotechnology Information. Curr Biol. 2010 May 11; 20(9): 850–855. Published online 2010 April 22.

Amy Atkins references to John Steinbeck-

Sweet Thursday-Book

Steinbeck, John. “Sweet Thursday”. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. P 108.

Sweet Thursday quote-

“It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”

Website reference to Sweet Thursday quote-

"John Steinbeck Quotes." BrainyMedia Inc, 2020. 23 September 2020.


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