Physiological Impact of Fractals

By Greg Bolt
The Register-Guard
Published: Saturday, November 25, 2006

Imagine working in a windowless building, cut off from the soothing sight of clouds blowing across the sky or leaves rustling in the wind, as another deadline looms. Feeling stressedFirst, though, it's important to understand what fractals are. Simply put, they are patterns that repeat themselves at increasing levels of magnification. Think snowflakes.

Of course, it gets more complicated than that. It turns out that the mathematical relationships in those obvious kinds of fractals also exist in things that don't have any kind of obvious pattern at all. Think coastlines and tree branches and clouds.fractals and forest

But somehow our brains seem to recognize these patterns, Taylor said. And certain kinds - those that fall in the middle range of complexity - have been shown through earlier research to have a soothing effect on people.

Not coincidentally, scientists believe, those are the kind of fractal patterns found most often in nature. Enter the UO researchers, who are trying to figure out how our brains process these images and eventually harness nature's fractal patterns for use in the built environment.

Paul van Donkelaar, a professor in the UO's department of human physiology, is working with Taylor on a project that tracks the small movements of the eye as a subject looks at a computer-generated fractal pattern. The idea is to get a better idea of how the brain recognizes and assesses the patterns.

The research has caught the attention of a documentary filmmaker, who was on campus recently to film the project for a show to be broadcast on PBS next year.

Van Donkelaar said the research is breaking new ground by using such complex images. Until now, only very simple images have been used when looking at eye movement.

"It's definitely a different way of looking at relationships between visual input and motor output," he said. "The thing in between those two is the brain. What's going on in the brain in all this? We know it's not just random eye movement."

The research also has caught the interest of scientists in Sweden and Australia who are part of what is becoming an international effort. Taylor and van Donkelaar hope to establish a joint institute, the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Complexity, with the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

At the UO, the research has spread not only to physics and human physiology but also to psychology, where professor Dare Baldwin is working with infants to see if fractal recognition is innate or learned, Taylor said. Ultimately it could involve art and architecture as ways are sought to introduce fractals in building design.

"To me it's fascinating that you can stare at these things and it does have an impact physiologically," Taylor said. "And it can be quite a profound one."

And with all that stress in the world, Taylor figures anything that helps people feel better can't help but be a good thing. Think fractal wallpaper.

"If we can take even a small bit out of that $300 billion we spend on stress, we're doing everybody a big favour," he said., you look up at the wall and see a strange but somehow pleasing pattern etched into its surface. You feel better.

That's the kind of future that University of Oregon physicist Richard Taylor imagines, and now he's working with other scientists at the UO and other universities around the world in hopes of realizing it. They're studying patterns known as fractals in an effort to understand why and how certain ones seem to give people a mental boost.

"I think it's very important to understand what makes people feel good," Taylor said, citing the estimated $300 billion that stress-related problems cost the American economy each year. "There's so much stress in the world today."


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