Dreams: The Process of Awakening

A Physical and General Theory of Dreams

By Bruce McKeithan

Last Revised in November, 2022

Dreams represent the physical process whereby we transition from deep sleep to waking. This article uses thermodynamics in part to provide an explanation of this process.

The production of energy causes a disruption or disturbance of the affected area. Thermodynamics refers to this disorder or disorganization as entropy and designates it by the letter S. Relief from S is necessary to avoid or prevent excessive internal energy. An expansion of the area, such as with a balloon or a combustion engine, usually accomplished this task. But, as we shall see, waking requires another, intervening action.

During sleep, energy is produced at the base of the brain and expands into the lower central part of the brain, into what is presumably the limbic system. A further expansion is in the offing, waking us up, but first we try to deal with it in the new area. Dreaming represents this intermediate stage.

The brain’s limbic system has the capability of storing energy in order to reduce S. The storage process is not 100 percent efficient , and some heat, which is the product of temperature and entropy, also occurs. It makes sense that we try to offset or nullify the residual S. We do so by utilizing familiar activities, but the main process of storing energy predominates and frustrates these efforts.

 This accumulation of energy though has a limit, so that at its peak energy must again be released threatening us with internal energy. It is at this point that an expansion into the upper reaches of the brain occurs, bringing about consciousness and the expenditure of energy The peak apparently does not come until there is enough energy when used to get us back to rest and complete the sleep-waking cycle. This stage may be a suitable definition of the mind as well.

Stage 1 Initiation

Initially, we must avoid internal energy and relieve pressure at the base of the brain. Transferring energy into the lower central part of the brain where memory and emotion exists accomplishes this task. As a result, we see ourselves at a location away from home. We may be at the beach or some other resort or in the mountains, or in another region of the country, or even in another country. We are no longer in deep sleep.

Having done that though we wish to return to the peace of home (deep sleep), 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. These enlargements represent the storage of energy, which is not yet quite adequate for it to be translated into action. Getting back to deep sleep first requires an expenditure of energy.

Stage 2 Our Efforts

The increase in heat which can do some damage to this area of the brain must be offset or fixed by work 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 or correcting any number of things that we remember as pleasurable. We may 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. Viewing prepared food or having sex are remedies that appear near the end of a dream for the reason stated below.

The storage of energy takes the form of various large objects or groups of people. There may be crowds or gatherings of people in various venues. It may be reflected by a number of houses or other buildings, or a single large structure, or a large number of tables or desks in some setting, or some natural phenomenon such as a forest or high hills. We may even see a large display of food. Being large, we can refer to these groups by the physics term “mass”, although the term is not usually used in this way.

An interaction and sometimes a competition between mass and our personal attempts to accomplish something occurs. The growth in mass seems to predominate and frustrate our actions, blocking our efforts to offset heat and to prevent internal energy. For example. 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. We are turned down for a large loan to start a business, etc. Near the end of a dream, as mass grows almost to the point of completely blocking our efforts, we want to persevere. Since sex and food are essential for life, we often use them to represent this situation.

We must recognize that the storage of energy simply takes up room and is in the way of our efforts. Thus, it passively interferes and blocks our personal efforts. Stated the other way around, our actions are inferior to the mass of images. Imagine two ships colliding at sea, or two ships at harbor one smaller than the other. Occasionally though we may find success at some endeavor, e.g. we may be able to hit a golf ball up a steep hill and have it go in the hole, or we may win a lawsuit. In this case, the mass and success are coincident, but it is the mass which ultimately crowds out our efforts and leads to awakening.

At the end of a dream, the increase in mass reaches a peak, and our frustration is clearly present.  When mass reaches the limit in the amount of energy that it can store, it is like a large waterfall spilling over a dam at the end of a large lake, or a stream rushing down a mountain towards a town, or water going rapidly through a culvert, or the edge of the ocean along a beach. These two things (a very large mass and utmost frustration or difficulty) are coincident at this critical point. They tell us that we must awake to avoid the danger from excess internal energy. No matter how many successes or failures occur, it is the threat of more energy within, say, the inner sanctum of the brain that awakens us.

Prolonging sleep can aggravate the situation. Internal energy may actually occur, e.g. a hard baseball line drive passing close to one. The growth in mass may engender a hostile situation such as some police or military force or enemy threatening us with execution or death. An adverse, deadly condition or situation affecting someone besides ourselves may also occasion wakening.

Stage 3 Consciousness

It then becomes imperative that we extend energy into the brain’s upper and outer regions, which control many functions necessary for living. This brings about consciousness and the need to expend energy and finally to use enough energy to allow us to go home. Once wake, 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 at his point 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.

We have learned that we can deal with new energy internally up to a point, but then we must find outlets for our energy. We also realize at the same time that we must take actions which provide for our security and comfort as well as simply prevent or eliminate excess internal energy.


How mass, or a structure, is developed or created is beyond the scope of this article. This is something for physicists and physiologists to explain. The point here is that dreams are an intermediate stage between energy’s initial release and its expansion within the brain that results in external action. The intermediary storage of energy may include crystalline structures, which are well ordered, or structures with more loosely connected elements. To differentiate the storage of energy from internal energy, we may refer to it as potential and the latter as kinetic.

Below is a couple of points concerning physiology that may be of interest.

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.

The defensive nature of our actions (in dealing with heat) and the recall of people and objects from the past reflect the stimulation of the amygdala and its close relative, the hippocampus, respectively. The ultimate transfer of energy into other parts of the brain presumably is an expansion from the limbic system into the upper temporal lobe and into other lobes of the brain.


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.


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