Mother nature is one hell of a designer. As visual creatures, humans are hardwired to seek out aesthetically pleasing patterns. The eye is drawn to intricacy – a feature that is characteristic of the natural world.
In our increasingly urbanised society, we often find solace in nature’s creations. But what is it that makes a mountain range more soothing than a cityscape? Whilst the fresh air and peaceful stillness of rural environments can be great stress-busters, research suggests that it is actually the visual complexity of nature that calms us down.
Fractal patterns are the building blocks of nature and, according to science, they’re surprisingly good for you.
Pleasing fractal patterns in nature
Coined by the French-American mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot in 1975, the term ‘fractal’ describes self-repeating patterns of simple structures that form a visually complex image. Fractals are mathematical; they follow a distinct, repetitive formula to create infinitely deep patterns, like the spiralling growth of a plant, or the crystal formations of a snowflake.
Wherever you look, the natural world is made up of striking fractals. Take a single tree; the trunk forks into thinner branches, which then fracture into delicate twigs, forming an infinite pattern of fractal branching. Zooming in, even the vein network of a leaf and the cracked markings on the tree bark are, too, fractal patterns.
Away from the forest, we can also find fractals in meandering river channels that overlap and intertwine to form a chaotic, braided pattern when viewed from above. Clouds, flowers, succulents, shells, mountains, and coastlines – they all exhibit a fractal formation on some level.
Fractals are everywhere, even within us. From the branches of our lungs to our capillary networks and neuronal circuits, human biology forms complex fractals, mirroring the self-similar patterns found in nature.
Mother nature, the greatest stress-buster
It has long been known that spending time outdoors, with nature, helps to relieve stress. This is particularly apparent in forest-bathers – those who practice the Japanese relaxation technique of shinrin yoku, where you simply sit amongst the trees, breathe deeply, and observe the natural world around you.
In a review of 22 forest-bathing studies, researchers found that levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – were significantly lower in forest groups than in urban groups. But even for the non-outdoorsy urban dwellers, research has established that spending just 20 minutes in nature can, too, reduce levels of stress.
With fewer green spaces, soulless architecture, and box-shaped offices, urban environments aren’t exactly conducive to a stress-free life. Living in a city renders you 21% more likely to have anxiety and 39% more likely to develop a mood disorder than rural residents. And this physical disconnection from the natural world is likely to exacerbate mankind’s negligent attitude toward the environmental crisis.
Fascinatingly, the positive effects of being in nature go beyond breathing in the fresh air and listening to the sounds of nature. Our visual input – specifically, our exposure to fractals – may be a crucial predictor of our health and wellbeing.
Fractals are good for you
A well-cited study from the ‘80s reported that patients in a suburban hospital recovered quicker from surgery if they were assigned a room with a window view of nature, compared to a brick wall view. Though the author did not provide an explanation for this difference in recovery rate, it has been theorised that it was nature’s fractals that had this healing influence.
Richard Taylor, a physicist at the University of Oregon (UO), has researched this very theory. Taylor and his team re-examined a previous study that investigated the effect of visual images on skin conductance, a measure of neuronal activity. They found that participants recovered from stress 60% better when viewing fractal images, whereas non-fractal images heightened the stress response.
To gain a better understanding of how our mind responds to fractals, Taylor’s research team also used EEG to measure the brain activity of participants looking at geometric fractal images. They found that fractals increase the power of alpha brainwaves – our slower, more relaxed brain state.
Preliminary evidence from fMRI brain imaging studies even suggests that fractal images activate the parahippocampus, a brain region involved in emotion regulation. Collectively, these findings all reinforce the idea that fractal patterns aren’t just nice to look at, they’re effective stress-busters too.
Why fractals have aesthetic appeal
Jackson Pollock’s characteristic drip paintings – abstract, chaotic scenes created by the methodical pouring of paint – are known to subconsciously capture the eye of the observer with their alluring, natural feel. Long after his death, an analysis of Pollock’s patterns found them to be fractal, providing a mathematical explanation for why we are so visually drawn to his work.
Humans have been shown to exhibit an innate preference for these fractal patterns. In a recent study, researchers found that both children and adults display a consistent preference for fractal images with greater complexity. With participants as young as 3 years old, the findings suggest that this preference is established in early life.
Why is it that the eye is enticed by fractal patterns? The prevailing theory suggests that there’s an evolutionary mechanism involved. Humans evolved alongside the natural world, so it’s highly plausible that the visual centres in our brain have adapted to detect fractal patterns. We feel more at ease looking at fractals, which underlies this preference for nature.
It makes sense. When walking through an urban environment we see only flat, rigid, monotonous architecture. It’s an unfamiliar and unsettling visual scene that, even subconsciously, can leave us feeling stressed and on edge.
As another, rather extraordinary theory suggests, the visual system prefers self-similar input because its anatomy is, itself, fractal. Research has shown that both the vascular tree of the human retina and the tracked movement of our eye create fractal patterns. Put simply, some researchers believe that we seek out fractals because they mirror the structure of our own eyes.
Fractals as the future of urban living
Now that scientists have established this link between nature, fractals, and mental wellbeing, designers are proposing ways to implement these powerful patterns into urban life. In collaboration with Richard Taylor, 13&9 Design has developed a fractal carpet, termed the “Relaxing Floors” system. The flooring aims to subconsciously alleviate stress in workplaces, schools, hospitals, and airports – locations that tend to trigger anxiety in people.
“One of the best pieces of news from our psychology research is that you do not need to be exposed to fractal patterns long to get the positive effect,” Taylor told UO. “You don’t even need to stare directly at them. This means you can be walking along an airport corridor, not even paying attention to what’s under your feet, and the patterns on this carpeting may help reduce your level of stress by up to 60%.”
Going further, it has even been suggested that fractals could be utilised as a therapeutic strategy to sustain brain health. According to Marina Zueva, author of a paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience and Neuropharmacology, “a deficiency [in] complexity of sensations and images” could underlie numerous neurological conditions, and “artificial fractal environmental cues may be useful as a therapeutic strategy…[for] rehabilitation and prevention of neurodegenerative diseases.”
Even just on an individual scale, taking the time to engage with nature can be hugely beneficial to our mental health. Go outside, look up at the sky, and pay close attention to the patterns of the clouds. Visit a park, garden, or forest, and take in the surroundings; appreciate the fractal patterns, the fingerprints of nature.