The Physics of Dreams

Dreams: The Process of Awakening

The Physics Underlying Dreams

By Bruce McKeithan

Last Revised in June, 2022

There have been many theories about dreams over the years. These theories have been at least partially effective in telling us how dreams explain or influence behavior. They also try to take the mystery out of dreams, but they are not always very scientific, nor universal.

Let us explain dreams as the flow of energy in the brain that leads to waking up. Rules of physics can in part guide us in this undertaking. We first recognize that the base of the brain produces energy which moves upward into the lower part of the central brain, where emotion and memory reside. This relieves pressure at the base and stores energy at the new site. It also produces or transfers heat which we want to alleviate. We try to fix any damage from the heat and to engage in various activities to offset heat. Buildings, natural objects such as hills, and groups of people represent the energy storage. These people and things  take precedence over our activity and frustrate our personal efforts. By the end of a dream, these images grow very large and can no longer contain energy. So it releases a considerable amount of energy forcing us to awake to protect ourselves. We then actually expend energy, which involves the whole brain, completing the sleep-wake cycle.

Stage 1 Initiation

 Initially we must avoid internal energy in the base of the brain. Transferring energy into the lower central part of the brain accomplishes this task. We see ourselves at a location away from home. We may be at a resort or in the mountains, or in another region of the country, or even in another country. This may even connote some pleasantness.

Having done that though we wish to return to the quietude of home, but we have trouble doing so. We are unable to get our belongings together, or the route home out of the mountains is unclear, or there is difficulty in getting an airplane flight, or we cannot find our room in a hotel which has become larger and has many more hallways and elevators.

We can explain the situation as follows. Returning home requires a certain expenditure of energy which is not available at this point. So the mind stores energy, which we see in the form of large or many images of hills or other natural phenomena, or some large facility or buildings. These images of stored energy in turn block our efforts.

Stage 2 Our Efforts

In addition, there is an increase in heat which can do some damage to this area of the brain. Heat is a product of temperature and what thermodynamics calls entropy. Entropy is a disruption or disturbance of the affected area and is often defined as disorder or disorganization. It is this to which we react. Technically speaking, work offsets entropy and heat in order to prevent internal energy.

Various scenes in a dream reflect this. We may see ourselves wanting to cure a sick parent or another relative. We may need to repair or fix an old car, or a coal burning furnace, or an overgrown garden. We may be a part of an office reorganization or change in office procedures. We may dream of restoring or preserving any number of things that we remember as pleasurable. We may also try to offset entropy by imagining some activity that we have enjoyed in the past such as sports, or a card tournament, or a job or school.

The desire for food or sex usually appears at the end of a dream and often amidst a large crowd, particularly after one has awaken and gone back to sleep. Food and sex seem to be last ditch efforts to prevent internal energy because they are after all essential for life. The defensive nature of our actions and the recall of people and objects from the past reflect the stimulation of the amygdala and its close relative, the hippocampus, respectively.

There is however an interaction between stored energy (the mass of objects or people) and our activity. Mass predominates and frustrates our actions. In golf there are too many trees, hills or rocks to achieve success. In tennis the court is too large to hit a ball satisfactorily. This can be stated the other way around, namely that our actions are inferior to the mass of images. Imagine one ship colliding with another at sea. Occasionally though, there is some success in dealing with S, thereby minimizing internal energy, such as hitting a golf ball some distance up a hill and having it go in the hole. On the whole though frustration prevails and leads to awakening.

Again, mass (the storage of energy) in a dream is seen in the form of objects or groups of people, such as crowds or gatherings of people, or a number of houses or other buildings, or a single large structure, or a large number of tables or desks in some setting, or a forest or high hills. Near the end of a dream, we may even see a large display of food as well as various other large or numerous things. See Appendix for further discussion of energy storage.

The growth of mass becomes critical near or at the end of a dream. Mass must then release its contained energy, forcing us to awake to avoid imminent danger. The increasing mass has reached a peak or its limit in the amount of energy the mind can absorb. We need to awake and undertake real activities to use energy. We can envision the consequences of failing to awake as a large waterfall over a dam 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, and we attempt to escape. An adverse, deadly condition or situation affecting someone besides oneself may also occasion wakening.

Stage 3 Consciousness

Thus, it becomes imperative that we extend energy into the brain’s upper and outer regions, which control many functions necessary for living. Presumably this is an expansion from the limbic system into the upper temporal lobe and into other lobes of the brain. It brings about consciousness and the need to expend energy and finally to emit enough energy to allow us to go home. So we must find ways to satisfy our desires and interests and are highly motivated to do so.

We have finally realized that it is essential to wake up and commit ourselves to some task, profession, activity, or person in order to expend energy. Waking means that we agree to take such action, including developing and resolving ideas. How this goes, of course, depends on a favorable environment and our own cleverness or wits. Perhaps it ought to have been obvious from the beginning that we cannot significantly use our energy while still asleep, that such is futile.

Philosophically speaking, the need to act is imperative, compulsory, and as such predetermined (particularly in regards to survival needs). It does not however tell us how to act, what our behavior ought to be. That is to a great extent self determined.

Thus, we see that comparing the process of dreaming with the patterns of physics indicates that dreams are not so mysterious after all. This comparison suggests that there are consistent underlying mechanisms involving cause and effect, so that dreams really do have a rational explanation.

In the process, we have learned that we must accede to the demand to act in a conscious fashion despite our desire (and futile efforts) to deal internally with the deleterious effects of heat and entropy so as to prevent internal energy. We learn that perforce we have no other option.


Stored energy is like a man-made lake, which of course has a dam at one end. The dam can be the resistance of relatively few neurons in the midrange area, or middle, of the brain, or it can be the result of other phenomena such as those listed below.

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.

Thus, neurons and other brain structures can be made less permeable to the conduction of electrically charged chemicals. We can refer to this 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, or greater capacitance.

Physiologists may be able to provide a more definitive explanation of energy storage during dreams. The building and storage of energy is paramount when it comes to awakening and needs to be examined.


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 more information regarding physiology, see the internet or books about the brain.