✓ 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
Stress reduction is triggered by a physiological resonance that occurs when the fractal structure of the eye matches that of the fractal image being viewed. So, if the scene is too complicated, like a city intersection, you might feel discomfort.
Japanese researchers sent people to stroll in 24 different forests or around city centers. The forest walkers showed a 15.8% decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 1.9% drop in blood pressure, and a 3.9% drop in heart rate.
Try to take a 15-minute walk in nature every day.
Stanford researcher Greg Bratman and his colleagues used MRI to scan the brains of volunteers before and after they walked for 90 minutes, either in a large park or on a busy street. The nature walkers, but not the city walkers, showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex – a part of the brain tied to depressive rumination.
Tip #2: Change your office scenery
Changing the office scenery might calm you down and sharpen your performance. Try out these tactics:
Place your desk by a window with a view, if possible.
Compared with people who don’t have windows with a view, those who can see trees and grass have been shown to recover faster in hospitals. They had shorter postoperative hospital stays, received fewer negative evaluative comments in nurses' notes, and took fewer potent analgesics than patients in similar rooms with windows facing a brick building wall.
Have plants in your office space.
Another study showed that employees perform better when household plants are added to their workspaces, achieving 15% more productivity.
Download a fractal screensaver.
Since you don’t need to focus your attention on fractals to reap their benefits, a fractal screensaver on your computer can reduce your stress without you even trying. But make sure your fractals move to mimic the natural movement in nature. This keeps your brain engaged.
Tip #3: Choose your neighborhood wisely
Living close to green space has been linked to various health benefits. In England, researchers analyzed mental health data from 10,000 city dwellers and used high-resolution mapping to track where the subjects had lived for over 18 years. They found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress.
In Canada, an international team explored the relationship between health questionnaire responses from more than 31,000 Toronto residents and places of residence on a map of the city, block by block. The results showed that those living on blocks with more trees showed significantly fewer cardio-metabolic conditions, equivalent to being 1.4 years younger. Lower mortality and lower concentration stress hormones circulating in the blood have also been connected to living close to green space.
Tip #4: Check Out Fractal Art
The styles of many famous artists mirror nature’s patterns. For example, In Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, as in nature, certain patterns are repeated again and again, at various levels of magnification.
Interestingly, when researchers used an eye-tracking machine to measure what part(s) of Pollock’s paintings people were focusing on, they discovered a search pattern that itself was fractal. The eyes first scanned the big elements in the scene and then made mini-movements over smaller areas of the large areas previously scanned.
Among the artists who have incorporated fractal patterns into their work are Vincent Van Gogh, Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, Salvador Dali, and Wassily Kandinsky.
Don’t underestimate the effect of being outdoors and enjoying nature. Just by looking at fractals, you can reduce your stress levels and even improve mental performance. To get the most out of a fractal pattern effect, try following these tips:
Tip #1: Optimize your walks. Try to spend at least 15 minutes in nature each day.
Tip #2: Change your office scenery. Have plants in your office, sit by a window with a view, or use a fractal screensaver.
Tip #3: Choose your neighborhood wisely, and if possible, try to live somewhere surrounded by greenery.
Tip #4: Check out fractal art.
Being outdoors can improve the quality of your life. While you may not be able to take daily walks in the woods, you can always try these evidence-based fractal-friendly tips to improve your brain health!
Dr. Doniger is a cognitive neuroscientist with two decades of experience in the neurotech industry. He holds a PhD from New York University and has been involved in studies of visual perception, cognitive training, neurofeedback, and neurostimulation using behavioral and neuroimaging techniques in a variety of research and clinical settings.