The Physics of Dreams

Dreams: The Process of Awakening

The Physics Underlying Dreams

By Bruce McKeithan

Last Revised in August, 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.

When energy is produced, a disruption or disturbance of the affected area occurs. In thermodynamics, this disorder or disorganization is referred to as entropy and designated by the letter S. It must be relieved in order to avoid or prevent excessive internal energy. This is accomplished by an expansion of the area, such as with a balloon or a combustion engine. The situation is not quite so simple when it comes to dreams in which we try first to deal with new energy internally.

During sleep, energy that is produced at the base of the brain flows into the lower central part of the brain, which has the capability of storing it up to a critical point. This process is not 100 percent efficient, and some heat, which is the product of temperature and entropy, continues to exist. We try to offset, or nullify, this remaining S by familiar activities, but the main process is dominant and frustrates, or clashes with, these efforts.

The storage of energy takes the form of a large crowd of people, or many buildings or a single large building, or as in the case of the earth many trees or a large hill. It often has a structure, thus offsetting the increased S. These items have mass, so that we can refer to them by the physics term as mass. This storage of energy, or mass, though has a limit, so that at its peak we are again threatened with internal energy. The peak comes at a point where there is enough energy when used to get us back to rest and complete the daily cycle of sleeping and waking. So energy is then expanded into the upper reaches of the brain, bringing about consciousness and the expense of energy. 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. We see ourselves at a location away from home. We may be the beach or some other resort or in the mountains, or in another region of the country, or even in another country. This may even connote some pleasure.

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.

Stage 2 Our Efforts

At the same time, 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 storage of energy in a dream is seen in the form of various 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 some natural phenomenon such as a forest or high hills. Near the end of a dream, we may even see a large display of food. Let us use the physics term mass to refer to these groups. See Appendix for a further discussion.

An interaction between mass and our attempts to accomplish something occurs, a competition may even exist between them. Mass though predominates and frustrates our actions, blocking our efforts to offset heat. 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.. 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.

At the end of a dream, the increase in mass reaches a peak, and we may find some success and satisfaction in some endeavor. For example, we may be able to hit a golf ball up a steep hill and have it go in the hole. As we are near awakening our basic needs become more apparent. We may have a good breakfast set in front of us, and sex may come into play. When mass reaches a limit in the amount of energy that it can store, we may envision 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. These two things (very large mass and a successful effort) are coincident and tell us that we must awake to avoid the danger from excess internal energy.

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. It brings about consciousness and the need to expend energy and finally to emit 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 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.


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 the energy-produced increase in entropy and the expansion of energy within the brain followed by external action. The intermediary storage of energy may include crystalline structures, which are well ordered, or structures with more loosely connected elements. 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.