The Meaning of Dreams

Dreams: The Process of Awakening

A Physical Interpretation of Dreams

Revised September, 2021

By Bruce McKeithan


Dreams reflect the brain’s and our own efforts to minimize the disturbing effect of energy within us at various stages of awakening. Let us see how this happens and leads to waking up. We rely on certain principles from physics to do this and defer to others for a physiological exposition of dreams.

For the sake of our equilibrium and to remain as undisturbed as possible, we try to handle the energy that the brain releases at its base. First of all, to decrease the velocity (and increase the wavelength) of the engendered brainwaves, energy flows into the central part of the brain where it is contained. We can store that incoming energy among many nerve cells, further reducing the velocity of the associated brainwaves. We can speak of brainwaves because according to quantum physics, which has been around since 1900 as has psychoanalysis, energy is equivalent to the frequency of the waves carrying it. A lower frequency means a greater wavelength and a lower velocity of waves.

Once the energy storage reaches, or nearly reaches, a maximum, it reverses itself, constituting a second phase of a dream. We do not welcome this change either as it confronts us with disquieting free energy. The mind though prevents internal activity from occurring by creating large images or a very large single image. This frustration and the growth in images can only last so long. The mass of images reach a maximum and the internal energy which they represent becomes too great to handle. We then realize that we need to awake to expend energy.

Phase 1 – Gaining Control

During sleep, we try to deal with the energy that the base of the brain releases. As a result we may find ourselves away from home at a resort, or in the mountains, or in another region of the country, or even in another country. We remember people and settings that we have known in the past. To emphasize the point, we may being doing something in a cooler, more northern climate

Physics can explain this displacement: Brainwaves threaten to become too sharp to be sustained in the same place. A new state allows them to become more elongated and stretched out and decreases their momentum reciprocally. As momentum is a product of mass and velocity, it is mostly a decrease in velocity that occurs. Some mass in the form of individual people may increase though as an offset to a greater decrease in velocity than is necessary for a reciprocal of the increase in wavelength.

We can further reduce (modulate) our energy by storing it, converting incoming kinetic (motion-filled) energy to greater potential (still) energy. As the mind deals with electrically charged chemical elements and electrical energy, it reduces applied electric fields to accomplish this storage.

Devices for storing electrical energy are called capacitors. The brain has various structures that serve this purpose such as the membranes of nerves and the gaps between nerve cells. To decrease the strength of microscopic electric fields it is necessary to make these structures less permeable to the conduction of charged elements. We can interpret this physically as a self-regulating increase in the dielectric strength (or charge-resistance) of the material between opposite charges. It provides for an increase in the amount of stored electric charge, something called capacitance.

In physiology, Dr. Clay Armstrong, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania has found that positively charged calcium has a blocking effect within the membranes of nerves cells. In addition, there are antagonistic molecules within the space (or synapse) between neurons. There are also inhibitory neurons in addition to the principal neurons acting on a postsynaptic nerve. While the net effect of the two types of neurons may determine whether an impulse is propagated further, it must still involve a reduction in the electric field.

Let us also briefly discuss thermodynamics as it pertains to dreams. The release of energy that precedes a dream is called an increase in entropy, or disorder (symbol S). To avoid an increase in pressure, energy flows out of the stem of the brain into the interior of the brain. This presents a new challenge to us in the form of imposed energy that can result in increased heat and temperature. To lessen that impact, the mind must take preemptive action. Two psychiatrists Hobson and McCauley have pointed out in their 1977 paper that dreams are the brain’s effort to make sense of the resulting chaos. Thus we can expect the mind to regulate the incoming energy in some way. At each step of the way, including the next phase, we are trying to avoid or minimize what physicists call internal energy.

Phase 2 – Maintaining Control

As a dream continues, the brain relinquishes the achieved state (or the storage naturally degrades) and produces new energy, but we fight this disturbance, too. At first we try to preserve the results of our older efforts by curing or repairing the damage done by the dissolution. We see ourselves wanting to help a sick parent, who in reality has died, or another older relative. It may be an old car, or a coal burning furnace, or an overgrown garden, that needs repair or fixing.

The new energy also prompts an attempt to mitigate its impact by carrying out familiar, even prospective activities internally. The inward, imagined activity may take the form of sports, or a card tournament, or a job, or school. It may indicate some interest or desire, a la Freud’s suggestion some years ago.

At the same time, there is a buildup of images, which physics call additional mass. We may see large, fairly still objects, such as crowds or gatherings of people, or a number of buildings or houses, or a single large building or structure, or a large number of tables or desks in some setting, or even high hills. The mass of images represents a another decrease in entropy, or storage of energy, as opposed to using energy in some activity. See Appendix for an explanation of this phenomenon.

Internalized activity while asleep is the weaker of the two since it is unrealistic. It is inadequate as a means of taking care of, or allowing for, the expansion of new energy. Thus the large, still images predominate and interfere with and frustrate the imagined activity. Examples of this are golf where there are too many trees, hills or rocks to achieve success; and tennis where the court is too large to hit the ball satisfactorily. We may envision going back home in order to return to deep sleep. But we cannot achieve this directly, i.e. without actual activity to expend energy. So we have trouble getting started, we cannot get our belongings together, the route is unclear, or we have trouble getting an airplane flight.

Increasing mass has its limitations though. There is a peak in the amount of energy the mind can absorb and the mass of images at this point seem numerous or large indeed. This forces a release of energy which can occasion the threat of an excess of internal energy. We can envision this as a large waterfall at the end of a large lake, or a stream rushing down a high hill toward a town, or water rapidly going through a culvert. Prolonging sleep can even engender a hostile situation: Some police or military force, or enemy, may threaten us with execution or death.

Dreams themselves prove the existence of the herein-described process of awakening. Since initially there is a significant expansion of energy from the base of the brain, there cannot be much of an increase in mass and internal energy at the same time. Hence there must be an intermediate stage to contain the initial burst of energy which impacts the central part of the brain. Subsequently this intermediary, which many theorists discuss, releases the energy that produces an increase in mass (or density) of images.  As mentioned above, the increased mass temporarily thwarts internal activity until it becomes too large to be sustained, i.e. there is a conflict between internal energy and expansion.

Consciousness – Retaining Control

Once the mass of images (representing internal energy) does reach a maximum in size or number, an expansion of energy must take hold, forcing us to awake to mollify its impact. Hence it is waking activities which are usually constructive, reducing entropy, to use a thermodynamic term.

We can generally say that it is impossible to handle the internal situation any longer. We cannot go home directly, the rushing or falling water indicates an impending, substantial increase in velocity (or kinetic energy), and the danger to us threatens to become severe. The size or number of images reaches a maximum as the new energy dominates. We must now find an alternative solution to handling the situation and transition to that. Consciousness affords us the ability to have objectives and to use our energies.

We have finally realized that it is essential to wake up and really and truly expend energy to return to an equilibrium state. Once awake we commit ourselves to some task, profession, activity, or person in order to expend energy. Waking means that we agree to take such action. How this goes, of course, depends on a favorable environment and our own cleverness or wits.


It is a formula called the De Broglie relation that informs us that the mass of images must increase in Phase 2 rather than Phase 1. The shortening of wavelength, which accompanies Phase 2’s energy increase, implies an increase in momentum. Since momentum is a combination of mass and velocity, both can increase. But mass is more effective in containing free energy during sleep, and so it takes precedence. As free energy grows so does mass until it reaches maximum containment.

De Broglie in his 1924 hypothesis intended to show that particles as well as light beams had wave motion. He derived his hypothesis from Planck’s formulation in 1900 that energy (E) was equal to Planck’s constant (a very small number represented by the letter h) times the frequency (f) of a radiation’s light wave, in short E = hf. De Broglie translated it as follows:

Because E = mass times velocity squared and f is velocity (v) divided by wavelength (w), E = hf can be written as mv2 = hv/w, or simply mvw = h. This relation states that the lengthening of w, which goes along with a storage of energy, can cause a decrease in v. Subsequently, the decrease in w, which accompanies the conversion of potential energy back into kinetic energy, can result in an increase in m, while v remains roughly the same.


Thanks to Dr. John P. Ralston, professor of physics at Kansas University, for helping me during the past several years to understand and appreciate various things about physics and to put these concepts into words. Most college physics books cover this article’s topics in more detail. For information regarding physiology, see the internet or books about the brain.