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Your brain needs fractals, so go outside

Human brains aren't indoorsy.

Liz turquoise leaf GETTY

There’s a reason why you feel the need to get out of that cubicle or apartment every so often, or even drive out of the city altogether, and it isn’t just fresh air and sunshine. Your brain isn’t indoorsy.

It might sound like a page out of a trippy Magic Eye book, but fractals, or infinitely repeating patterns, are found everywhere in nature, and your brain actually needs your eyes to see them. The problem is that we spend too much time within four walls. Humans were not made for that. Homo sapiens evolved outside, constantly taking in the fractals around them, such as leaves and flower petals. Unfortunately, urban environments are not built that way.

Just slapping repeating patterns on everything in the office isn’t going to do much. Posters of trees and flowers and raindrops (with or without motivational phrases) won’t do it either. The brain has an evolutionary need to see naturally occurring fractals to de-stress, which is why researchers Richard Taylor, Nikos Salingaros, Nir Buras and their research team are trying to figure out the best way to recreate them inside. They recently coauthored a study, led by Taylor, in Urban Science.

Fractality means that the closer you look at something, you still see a lot of ‘stuff’,” Buras told SYFY WIRE. “In contrast, the closer you look at a contemporary building, the less there is to look at. In a built environment, fractality means the experience of art is similar to nature.”

Think about it. When you look at mountain from far away, you see the mountain itself, and trees, possibly boulders, maybe even a river or lake if there is one around. Get closer and you will be able to see the leaves on the trees, the textures of the rocks, the ripples in the water. Get even closer to the rock wall of the mountain and you will be able to see textures within textures within textures. It’s the same with the trees and the river. Whether you realize it or not, the geometries of all the fractals in that mountain and surrounding natural features are related.

Your brain responds to fractals positively — as in, less stress and mental fatigue. Taylor and his team found out that these negative impacts could be reduced up to 60 percent just by gazing out at nature. The effect can be so powerful that even hospitalized patients who have a window in their rooms tend to heal faster because their minds and bodies go into a relaxed mode. Feeling relaxed is not just a want, no matter how much we normalize stress, but a biological need. Humans hate living in boxes. If you’ve ever worked in a windowless cubicle, you know.

"Both fMRI studies and VAS scans reveal that the human brain engages directly with fractals and is uninterested in empty minimalist, or random (both anti-fractal) visual scenes," Salingaros said. "This represents an unconscious response that takes place within a few seconds."

You can’t exactly pay attention to it right away. However, when the unconscious response is switched on, it also gives us a feeling of understanding, because it can identify information that it is able to use, and that leads to satisfaction. Anti-fractal scenes drain you. They tire the brain, which keeps trying to find usable information, and ends up with nothing. The researchers think our brains shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between natural fractals and artificial fractals designed to look exactly like those in nature. Certain aesthetic aspects make all the difference.

Something that has to be considered when adapting fractals to put the outdoors indoors is the type of space they are in. The fractality of leaves in a forest is going to look different from leaves painted in a boxy room or hallway, and it isn’t that easy to trick your brain. The psychological needs you have when you’re actually strolling through the woods are different than those that kick in when you’re late to a meeting and making a run for it. This is why Taylor and his team are developing ways to incorporate fractals into the actual structure of a building.   

“Although all fractals are appealing, there is a specific complexity (the one we were exposed to in evolution) that maximizes the fractal efficiency effect,” he also told SYFY WIRE. “As long as we create the right level of complexity, this can occur for both natural and artificial fractals.”