The Physics of Dreams

Dreams: The Process of Awakening

The Physics Underlying Dreams

By Bruce McKeithan

Last Revised May 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 and the author’s own dreams can guide us in this undertaking. We first recognize that energy is produced at the base of the  brain, and the ensuing pressure is relieved by energy moving upward into the lower part of the central brain, where emotion and memory reside. It appears that we then have to deal with the release of energy there. So we try both to stop that energy from affecting us and to fix any damage that the new energy causes. Once the containment of the new energy reaches a certain limit, this energy becomes suddenly very active, presenting a severe threat to us. At this point, energy expands further into the brain, and we must awake to carry out activities to use our energies.

Stage 1 Initiation

 In the initial phase, we may find ourselves at some distance from home. We may be at a resort, or in the mountains, or in another region of the country, or even in another country. In a way, this displacement represents a quantum shift. It is like the transition of an irradiated electron in an atom where the electron shifts to an orbital further away from the nucleus. The new state allows brainwaves to become less sharp and more elongated, and it makes the brainwaves slower. Velocity is reciprocal to the stretched length. From a thermodynamics viewpoint, physics refers to the release of energy as an increase in entropy. The transfer of energy upwards represents an increase in volume in order to avoid internal energy and heat at the base.

At some point, we wish to release the newly pent-up, stored energy and return home. But we have trouble leaving the current state as shown by being unable to get our belongings together, an unclear route, or difficulty in getting an airplane flight. Leaving or retiring from a job and similar scenarios have the same key idea, that of completion. They all require an emission of energy, like an electron moving back from a higher orbital. It is interesting that the thought of moving downward as well as upward further confirms the quantum effect in energy. But releasing energy in this area of the brain is also simply not desirable nor tolerable. We are blocked from going home. How this occurs is discussed in the next section.

Stage 2 Observations

When energy is released into or enters the brain proper, we then must deal with it. Something must be done both to avoid or prevent excessive internal energy. The mind produces a large mass of images to hold back and store some of that energy. Some of that energy actually produces heat, which we try to alleviate by engaging in mental activity. These two effects of increasing energy are discussed in the Appendix from a quantum standpoint.

Mass in a dream is seen in the form of large 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 see a large display of food or have the idea of many instances of some other thing as well. These images represent a storage of energy and thus an avoidance of what thermodynamics call entropy, designated by the letter S.

Entropy is a disruption or disturbance of the affected area and is often defined as disorder or disorganization. It may result in heat, which as we know may do some damage to a system. Hence, 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 any number of things that we remember as pleasurable. In physiology, stimulation of cells called the amygdala puts one in such a defensive posture (see Appendix). In addition, the desire for food or sex usually comes at the end of a dream because food and sex are after all essential for life.

Often we try to offset S by imagining some activity that we have done in the past such as sports, or a card tournament, or a job or school, but the mass predominates and frustrates this activity. 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. Occasionally, 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. But on the whole, frustration is a significant element of dreams. Activity in a dream seems to be weaker or less important than the occurrence or presence of mountains or other massive or ubiquitous objects that are intended to avoid or prevent an increase in S in the first place.

We can say that the mass of objects  takes precedence over our efforts to offset S, that it is primary in the mind’s effort to minimize internal energy. Underneath it all, there may be a conflict between two waves or sets of waves, one being dominant. The collision of two ships at sea may represent this clash.

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 else besides oneself may also occasion wakening.

Stage 3 Consciousness

Thus, it becomes imperative that we awake and try to satisfy our desires and interests. The notion of going home has released energy (presumably into the brain’s lower temporal lobe). But a growth in mass has frustrated the effort to go home and our efforts to minimize internal energy while asleep. Finally the mass itself releases energy, as revealed by rushing or falling water. The danger to us becomes severe so that 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. In fact, the energy that the mass releases is just the right amount needed for consciousness. Thus there is a quantum effect here too. Physiologically speaking, the newly released energy must expand into the brain’s upper reaches 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. The expansion stimulates us to act. We must find things to do 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 one cannot significantly use one’s 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 internal energy. We learn that perforce we have no other option.

Translating this process of awakening into physiological terms is another undertaking, but we have mentioned a few points in the Appendix.


There is formula in physics called the De Broglie relation that informs us that the mass of images must increase in Phase 2 rather than Phase 1 and grow larger at the end of a dream. Let us examine this relation to see why.

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 (m) times velocity (v) squared and f is v divided by the wavelength (w), we can write E = hf as mv2 = hv/w, or simply mvw = h.

Since an increase in energy shortens w, the product mv (which expresses momentum) must increase reciprocally. There may be a mixture of waves with different combinations of m and v. But m contains or prevents the energy onset whereas v represents undesirable internal energy, or damaging heat. Therefore m takes precedence and tends to block or interfere with waves where v is predominant.

As for 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-resistace) of the material between opposite charges. It provides for an increase in the amount of stored electric charge, or greater capacitance.

Another point is the fact that the amygdala is stimulated (by dopamine instigating REM sleep, as has recently been discovered) indicates or reflects the defensive nature of one trying to deal with internal energy in dreams. The amygdala is closely associated with the hippocampus involving memory, as is evident in a dream.


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.


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