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Fractal Shapes: The Science Behind “Awe” in Nature

Author: Leila Pellegrino

You may have experienced a sense of “awe” in nature before. You may have stepped outside for a moment, and felt a true sense of bewilderment at nature’s beauty. You may have felt your body release its tension, and felt your mind let go of the stressors of daily life, with a view before you of branches swaying, water moving, and birds flying past. While you may have felt this before, or even been a constant seeker of this magical feeling, you may not have ever known why nature does this to us. Well, let’s break one aspect of this phenomenon down: fractal shapes.

Think of the structure of tree branches, of bark patterns, ripples in water, even within the human body; our vascular system, the design of a cell. This is all, in truth, a complex system of mathematics and finely magnified structures that falls under the concept of fractals.

In 1984, the new findings of a study held by Roger S. Ulrich at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital sought to change our understanding of nature’s effect on humans. Ulrich’s study found that 23 surgery patients staying in rooms with windows facing “a natural scene had shorter postoperative hospital stays, received fewer negative evaluative comments… and took fewer [pain relieving medications] than 23 matched patients… with windows facing a brick building wall.”

So what were those fast healing patients seeing when they looked through their natural scene windows? They were seeing, as Richard Taylor explains, the basic structure of the natural world, the fingerprint of life, the building blocks of nature, the repeating of fractal shapes. The above study seeks to prove that nature is healing to our bodies, but all of that must start in the mind. In Taylor’s work “The Profound Nature of Fractals”, the foreword of Fractal Epistemology for a Scientific Psychology (Tarlow, Friedman, Shapiro, & Wolf, 2020), he explains that “our eyes have become fluent in the visual language of nature’s fractals”, that we are “hardwired” to speak this language because “our eyes trace out fractal motions when searching for visual information”.

So, we can’t really help but be always searching for fractals. But why are we, as Taylor describes, “hardwired” to do this? He states that “animals undergo fractal searches through their terrains when foraging for food”, which puts the act of searching for fractals in our basic needs category. And what happens to our brain when we find the fractals? An article by Mindlift titled “Your Brain on Nature”, states that “a physiological resonance… occurs when the fractal structure of the eye matches that of the fractal image being viewed”, resulting in significant stress reduction (2022). And so it appears that when we see fractal structures (nature) that match the fractal structures within us (as we are natural beings), we calm a need. We slow down the distractions in our mind, and can finally tap into the more profound questions and intuitive thinking that our mind wants to naturally go to, and that we are so lacking during our day to day.

We must realize that when we are in nature, when we are looking at nature, we are healing and de-stressing our mind and body. It calms us, it restores us, and it fills up our cup, so to speak. If you are wondering what amount of fractal searching/nature viewing is needed in order to see its benefits, take a look at one of our past blogs on the “RX” of nature. This shares great dosage amounts for time in nature that are easily applied to your daily life. And for those seeking wilderness retreat programming that uses some of this philosophy to promote personal growth, mindfulness, untethering and mental well being, you may want to look into our next retreat to New Hampshire’s White Mountains National Park, here.

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