There are certain sights and moments we can experience in nature that just naturally seem soothing. For example, you could lie on a grassy hill, staring up into the sky, and watch the clouds slowly pass by. It turns out things like this aren’t soothing simply because you’re enjoying nature but because the repetitive movements and patterns we come across in nature make up what are known as fractals. And fractals are actually what brings that calming effect.
“It’s spectacularly simple,” says Richard Taylor, a University of Oregon physicist and a leading researcher on fractals. “Nature has chosen fractals to be its basic building block.”
The explanation for this starts with basic human evolution. Studies have shown that the human brain is wired to process fractal patterns quickly and instinctively because they’re so common in the natural world — from tree branches to the symmetry of ripples scrolling across the surface of a pond. Unsurprisingly, as we’ve become more detached from nature, the absence of fractal patterns actually builds our stress and anxiety with more ease.
“We’ve looked at EEG [tests that measure electrical activity in the brain] and MRI scans, and we found that stress levels decrease by up to 60% just by looking at fractals,” says Taylor. “That’s a huge physiological change to just have glanced at something. Usually, you have to pop a pill to get people that relaxed. There’s nothing too demanding visually when we look at a fractal. We’re in our comfort zone, and that puts us into a relaxed state.”
So it turns out the next step in understanding fractals has been to start implementing them more and more in our artificial, man-made world. Taylor is apparently working to have fractals placed onto new buildings so passers-by can be surrounded by them in urban environments more often. It’s even been found that fractal screensavers on your computer can have the exact same effect. This is because we aren’t actually required to focus on fractals for them to have a soothing effect on us. So long as they are moving (or we are), the natural movements in nature can be mimicked and effectively trick the human brain, creating the same results. We can also accomplish this by taking a window seat in the office, eating our lunch outside, or just being sure to take a walk in the park each day. “Passive viewing works too,” Taylor says. “You could just put these fractals on the wall and that would be enough.”
The benefit of it all is that fractals can be found to lower legitimate stress levels. This video demonstrates the entire effect by showing different fractals in leaves, a cactus, palm fronds — all blowing in a gentle breeze or even just in complete stillness.