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Your Brain on Nature: EEG Data Shows the Power of Fractal Patterns

Updated: Oct 10, 2022

✓ Fact checked by: Dr. Glen M Doniger, PhD

Electroencephalogram (EEG) data from a study led by Swedish researcher Caroline Hagerhall shows that while viewing fractal images, the frontal lobes produce the feel-good alpha brainwaves characteristic of a relaxed, awake state.

EEG is a method for recording and monitoring electrical activity in your brain. In addition to tracking your brain waves, EEG can be used to help train your brain to shift into a healthier (e.g., more relaxed) state via neurofeedback sessions.

Fractals in Nature

A fractal is a complex pattern that’s repeated at fine magnification. You can find fractal patterns throughout nature in trees, clouds, rivers, and coastlines. You can even find fractals in your body – in your veins, nerves, eyes, bronchial tree, and your brain.

So, if you ever felt a sense of calm after gazing at the sea or watching the tree branches sway in the breeze, know that it’s not only the fresh air that made you feel relaxed. Through exposure to nature's fractal scenery, your visual system has adapted to process fractals with ease, and that's why it is so soothing to look at repeating shapes.

What Responses do Fractals Induce in Your Brain?

In Hagerhall’s study, researchers monitored subject's EEG while they were viewing fractals with different fractal dimensions.

When landscape silhouettes extracted from photographs of natural scenery were used, outlines with a mathematical fractal dimension (called D) of around 1.3 elicited the highest judgments of perceived naturalness.

The scientists hypothesized that fractal images with a D between 1.3 and 1.5 will also produce a maximal alpha response in the frontal areas of the brain. The alpha waves are produced in the brain when you’re awake but relaxed.

They converted a series of nature photos into simplistic representations of the landforms’ fractal silhouettes against the sky. The silhouettes were viewed for 1 minute each and interspersed with a neutral grey picture for 30 seconds. A 1 minute exposure period was chosen to maximize the likelihood of a relaxation effect in the participants. Half of the subjects viewed the images with increasing fractal dimension and the other half with decreasing fractal dimension.

Researches used EEG to measure people’s brain waves and discovered that images with a fractal dimension of 1.3 induced the largest changes in EEG responses. The participant’s frontal lobes produced the feel-good alpha brainwaves characteristic of a relaxed, awake state.

How Can You Use Fractals to Feel Better?

By taking a step back from your busy workload and taking in your natural surroundings, you can relieve stress levels and improve your mental performance. Try following these tips:

Tip #1: Optimize your walks