Arboretum News

Finding Fractals

Look for repeating patterns in nature the next time you visit the Arboretum.

Ferns unfurling at the Arboretum. Archive photo by Mark MacLennan.

By Jean Larson, manager of the Nature-Based Therapeutic Services Program at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

Have you ever heard of a fractal? Fractals are geometric forms, which contain similar repeating patterns found in nature. They have been also called “the fingerprints of nature.” Fractals are all around us (they are part of us!) but we rarely pay attention to them.  Human beings are hardwired to fractals because we evolved while constantly looking at them.  We can find fractal patterns in rivers, trees, fingerprints and other natural architecture. Fractals are the building blocks of infinitely complex patterns across different scales.

A growing body of research has investigated the therapeutic effects of fractal patterns on the human brain.  When we pay attention to fractals we trigger a physiologic response that actually lowers our stress.  Using fMRI and other physiological stress measurements, researchers found that looking at fractals can reduce stress levels by 60 percent. Scientists suggest the fractals activate certain areas of the brain which are responsible for regulating stress.

Science also tells us this rapid stress-reduction response occurs within the eye increasing alpha frequency in the frontal areas of the brain. The increase in alpha waves promotes relaxation and a sense of wellbeing.  The alpha waves have a positive effect on our attention.  As the Attention Restoration Theory suggests when outside and looking at naturally occurring fractals we can increase our concentration and combat attention fatigue. Even a short session of looking at fractals will benefit your mood and the effects are almost instantaneous.

The Arboretum is a fractal-rich environment.  So next time you are exploring the herb garden or fern glade, look for fractal patterns. Your brain will thank you for it!

%d bloggers like this: