Why do we like fractals so much?

I’ve recently started to get more motivated in reading and writing about different things and not only focus on my PhD research line. I reckon that opening the spectrum of knowledge across different research fields and disciplines might give me more resources and tools to have widespread thinking not only in my scientific career but also in my life.

So, today I would like to talk about fractals. I didn’t know what they were until some years ago (if you don’t know what they are you can read this post and continue reading this one afterwards) and now that I know about this repetition of patterns I kind of see them everywhere. Actually, I’m not that wrong. Fractals are almost everywhere. We seem them in nature (trees, leaves, water…), arts (Pollock’s art, paintings…), mathematics, architecture, history, science… and what makes me wonder is why do I feel so relax when I see them. What do I mean by that? Please, note if you are relaxed right now. Once you have a slight idea of your relax-level, then look at the images below and observe if you feel more relaxed than before.

Do you feel more relaxed? I do. But why? The findings by Richard Tylor might give me a hand to answer this question. He studied for many and many years Jackson Pollock’s art and did research on the impact of the observers when looking at aesthetic images (i.e., images that had fractals embedded in it). Tylor group used computer pattern analysis techniques to show that Pollock’s paintings are as fractal as patterns found in natural scenery. More interestingly, they found that when we look at this particular kind of images or paintings our body changes and shows radical reductions in stress level. More recently, another research study found that just by looking at images of natural scenes can change the way our automatic nervous system responds to stress.

At this point, Tylor asked himself: “Are fractals responsible of this?” To know the answer he collaborated with psychologists and neuroscientists, and measured people’s responses to fractals found in nature (using photos of natural scenes), art (Pollock’s paintings) and mathematics (computer-generated images) and discovered a universal effect they labelled “fractal fluency”.

silhouette-photo-of-trees-962312

The explanation behind this effect relies on the exposure to fractals in nature scenes and how our visual systems have adapted to efficiently process these repetitive patterns with ease. They found that this adaptation takes place in different stages and levels of the visual system, from the way our eyes move to the brain areas that get activated. So, it seems that this “fluency” and exposure to fractals is what puts us in a familiarized setting and to be in our comfort zone, and so, makes us enjoy looking at fractals. Boom! Out of curiosity, they also used EEG to record the brain’s electrical activity and skin conductance techniques to show that this aesthetic experience goes together with a stress reduction of 60%.

If you want to know more about how artists have embedded fractals in their works, and how Pollock increased the complexity of his fractal patterns you can read this post. Also, if you want to know more about behavioural and physiological responses to fractals you can read this post. All these posts are written by Taylor himself.

Hope you learnt something by reading this post about fractals and that you now see them everywhere such as I do!

Sources

All images are extracted from Pexels – CC0.

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