Fractals, Aesthetics, Biometrics

The aptly named “aesthetic turn in mental health” has brought with it the reevaluation of fractals as an important factor in generating resilience and mental well-being.

First coined in 1975 by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, the term “fractal” denotes complex, visually chaotic patterns that generate an infinite amount of copies self-repeating across different scales through a process called recursion.

Landscape generated from a detail of the Mandelbrot set by Terragen.

Across increasingly fine magnifications of leaves, waves, clouds, snowflakes and the arrangement of galaxies, researchers have uncovered recurring fractal patterns. According to environmental psychologist Caroline Hagerhall, these patterns affect an observer’s physiological state by way of generating positive aesthetic responses referred to as “biophilia” — literally “love for life” — the experiential tranquility of moments felt to be “good for living”.

Working with psychologists and neuroscientists, physicist Richard Taylor tested the affects of this biophilia — what he refers to as “fractal fluency” — on people’s physiological responses to fractal recursions in nature, but also in architecture, mathematics, and visual art. Initially, these studies focused on the poured paintings of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, whose patterns are often referred to as “natural” or “organic”.

Elicited by a physiological resonance in brain activity (EEG) and skin conductance (GSR) that occurs when the fractal structure of the visual system matches those of the fractal image being viewed, Taylor and his team found the aesthetic experience of paintings created using what they termed “fractal expressionism” resulted in participant stress-reductions of up to 60%.

Pollock’s “Number 3”, 1949, WikiArt.

Since Taylor’s preliminary Pollock work in 1999, more than ten research groups have used various forms of fractal analysis to quantify the calming effects of the newly labeled fractal expressionists ranging from Willem De Kooning, Yves Klein and Piet Mondrian, to Frank Gehry and M.C. Escher. Such findings demonstrate that extended exposure to fractals can dampen the body’s physiological response to environmental triggers for anxiety. They also imply that certain fractal atmospheres can be healing, or at least buffer people from life’s stresses.

As cardiologist Ary Goldberger points out, this is because our bodies operate like fractal arrangements. Contrary to classical theories of physiologic control, which assumed healthy bodies self-regulate to reduce variability and retain homeostasis, we now know the output of a wide variety of systems — from the human heartbeat to the electrical network of the brain — fluctuate in a complex manner even under resting conditions.

These fluctuations underpin the body’s ability to adapt to changing environmental contexts. As such, shifting toward greater randomness or order can cause problems. When, for instance, the heartbeat loses fractal correlations, it can become erratic, while steadier, lower variability in the heart rate can signal an increased risk for heart failure.

Echoing Goldberger, psychiatrists A.C. Yang and S.J. Tsai contend that such adaptive capacities are often impaired in people living with mental health challenges. As contemporary society surrounds itself within progressively denser and more disaffecting urban landscapes, these vital biorhythms of embodiment — literally how we incorporate biologically — become more disconnected from social, environmental, aesthetic health.

Fractal cityscapes courtesy of the Fractal Foundation.

In Ecopolis: Architecture and Cities for a Changing Climate, architect Paul Downton makes the case that re-coupling bodies with biorhythms requires re-imagining new models of social and ecological space that can embed new forms of collective care across communities and with the natural world. At EiQ Technologies, research projects like this at the intersections of emotion, design, urban planning, biometrics and human geography are really promising areas that we’ll explore further posts to come.

EiQ Technologies is a pathbreaking emotion-AI start-up based out of the Design Fabrication Zone (DFZ) at Ryerson University.