As I walked my dog down a busy urban street today I took special care to attend to the patterns and features of nature around me. I noticed the curve of tree branches, the bushes covered in bright blooms and the chirping birds as we walked. It was a lovely and very interesting walk, but I was not feeling relaxed. A jogger called out that she wanted to pass me causing me to rein in my dog and step to the side. Car horns blared and an ambulance siren sounded abruptly. My cell phone alerted me to an incoming call from yet another telemarketer. It was hard to give full attention to the sensory input from nature. Florence Williams describes a similar experience in her book, The Nature Fix. One summer she decided to use a portable EEG device to find environments that produce alpha waves. Not surprisingly, she repeatedly found that places filled with excessive noise and interruptions, actively trying not to be distracted and feeling angry all inhibited alpha wave production, those brain waves that indicate an alert, relaxed state. To really benefit from being in nature we need to unplug and retreat from society’s distractions.
But even in imperfect environments, nature affects us. Frances Kuo, a psychologist who heads the University of Illinois Landscape and Human Health Laboratory did seminal research comparing levels of psychological aggression and violence in women in a Chicago housing project apartment building. One group had a view of an asphalt parking lot out their windows and the other group lived in apartments facing lawns and trees. Through this research and subsequent studies evidence shows that just living in a place with a view of nature correlates with better impulse control, resistance to distraction, delayed gratification and lower violence, aggression and crime.
What is it about nature that brings calm? It may boil down to the influence of viewing fractal patterns. Benoit Mandelbrot introduced the term “fractals” and the idea of fractal geometry in the 1970’s. Unlike straight-forward, predictable linear geometry, fractal geometry involves systems that change radically due to a myriad of internal and external influences~ and fractal patterns that result from this complex and chaotic system are found repeatedly in nature. The diminishing patterns of a snowflake represent fractals. A head of cauliflower with smaller repeating versions of the whole appearing at each branch exemplifies fractals. The lines of a tree trunk, its branches, its smaller limbs and the striations of its leaves are fractals~ a pattern that appears over and over in different dimensions, sometimes unpredictably inverted or altered due to some intrusion of time or force. British information engineer and internet social scientist George Dallas gives a clear and thorough explanation of fractals in his blog “What are fractals and why should I care?”
Fractals represent an aesthetic order through haphazard grouping, which has the effect of being a very pleasing and sometimes even a spiritual experience for most people. NASA recognized this and funded early work on fractals to create a relaxing environment in space stations without using images that made astronauts homesick. Their studies showed that low to mid-range fractal ratios of large to small pattern repetition increased production of frontal lobe alpha waves in viewers. Mid-range fractal patterns activated parts of the brain responsible for visual processing, for spatial long-term memory and most interestingly an area of the brain which regulates emotions and also is active when listening to music.
As you do Ai Chi, take in the fractal patterns around you- in your surroundings and as you move your arms through the water.
Your deepest roots are in nature. No matter who you are, where you live, or what kind of life you lead, you remain irrevocably linked with the rest of creation. Charles Cook
For the 99 percent of the time we’ve been on Earth, we were hunter and gatherers, our lives dependent on knowing the fine, small details of our world. Deep inside, we still have a longing to be reconnected with the nature that shaped our imagination, our language, our song and dance, our sense of the divine.
Janine M. Benyus