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Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

CORRECTION (ran 5/11/04): Research at the University of Oregon involving the repeating patterns known as fractals includes the works of artist Jackson Pollock. Pollock's name was misspelled in a story Monday on Page A1.

Every office worker's dream is a desk near a window, and University of Oregon physics professor Richard Taylor thinks he knows why.

It all boils down to fractals, curious patterns at the intersection of art, science and nature that may be tattooed into our very genes. The patterns sometimes are so subtle and intricate that our conscious minds see little more than random chaos, but Taylor has found that deep in our brains we are so attuned to these patterns that just looking at certain types - such as those found in the trees and clouds seen through many office windows - can cut our stress levels up to 60 percent.

It's a finding that has huge implications for humans and the way they interact with the built environment. Cubicle walls, prison cells, even the inside of cramped spaceships could all be engineered to help inspire relaxation through the relatively simple inclusion of fractal patterns.

"If we can just subtly imbed fractal patterns in our environment, these could have an enormous impact on stress levels," Taylor said. "It's preliminary, and there are huge challenges ahead, but the potential is absolutely enormous. This is what's really exciting."

At their basic level, fractals are repeating patterns that reveal greater complexity the more they are enlarged. Some are geometric and easy to spot, like a snowflake or the popular example known as the Sierpinski Triangle, a triangle made of so many smaller triangles that the closer you look the more triangles you find.

Others are more subtle, their geometry so irregular it appears chaotic. A swirl of clouds or the complex interlacing of tree branches might seem random to the naked eye, but when examined in extremely close detail they reveal patterns built of patterns built of patterns.

Taylor has been studying these patterns for more than a half-dozen years, and most recently he found that people actually have a physical reaction to fractals that is strongest when the patterns have a certain "D value." The D value is a measure of fractal complexity; the least complex patterns have a value of 1.0 and the most complex 2.0.

People, it turns out, like fractals with a D value between 1.3 and 1.5. Taylor learned this by measuring skin conductivity during stress tests in which subjects were asked difficult questions, given a minute to relax, and then asked another question.

The questions produced a measurable level of stress. But when put through the same test while certain fractals were shown in the background, the stress level nose-dived, Taylor said.

"If you put the picture in the background while they're doing this - we didn't even tell them to look at it or draw attention to it - we find that a 1.3 D value actually reduces stress levels by 60 percent," he said.

That has inspired Taylor and the loosely organized international fractal research team he's leading to wonder if they haven't stumbled onto something that could radically change the lives of harried Americans and workers around the globe. What if our quality of life can be improved by simply surrounding ourselves with calming, pleasing fractals?

"As we're all painfully aware, stress is a big problem," Taylor said. "America alone wastes - and I mean literally wastes - $300 billion a year due to stress-related illness. Even if we could only reduce that by just one three-hundredth, that would still save a billion dollars a year."

With an infinite supply of fractal images - those found in nature are easily supplemented by computer-generated images - they could be placed just about anywhere and regularly changed to keep from dulling their calming effect through boredom or repetition, Taylor said. Designers might even find ways to incorporate fractals into building design.

But why do we react most strongly to certain types of fractals? It turns out that fractals created in nature most often fall into the 1.3 to 1.5 D value category favored by humans, leading Taylor to wonder if nature's fractals have become so hard-wired into our brains that seeing them can affect our emotional state.

"It appears that there is some sort of association with nature" driving our fractal preferences, Taylor said. "We seem to like what we're familiar with."

But Taylor believes our connection to fractals is even more complex. Rather than just nature's leftover imprint on our brains, fractal patterns are being found in things such as our heart rhythm and eye movements. They may be in the pattern of our footsteps or even in the way we sway about when we try to recover our balance.

Could fractals even be written in our souls? Taylor wouldn't go that far, but he is sure that fractal patterns show up not just in nature, not just in human neurology and physiology, but also in art.

In the curiouser-and-curiouser world of fractals, it turns out that nature and powerful computer programs aren't the only places where the patterns can be found or produced. They also are found in one other place: the drip paintings of the late artist Jackson Pollock.

Taylor stirred up the worlds of both art and science a few years back when he demonstrated that Pollock's work, rather than being random splatters of paint, actually contained sophisticated fractal patterns. And in his more recent work, he's found that the patterns fall into the category that humans find most pleasing.

"It's not just that he painted fractals, he painted a specific kind of fractals," Taylor said. "He's not just mimicking fractals. His patterns are as fractal as nature's, as perfect as computer fractals."

Pollock painted in the 1940s and 1950s and died in 1956, long before the concept of fractals was developed.

So did Pollock know what he was creating? Did he have a unique ability to tap into that part of our psyche that connects to nature's patterns, or can anyone release his inner fractals by doing what Pollock did?

Taylor wants to find out. In an experiment that began Thursday, he's taking 100 volunteers and having them splatter paint much like Pollock to see if their paintings come up with fractal patterns.

"We know that not everybody can paint in fractals," Taylor said. "The question is, how many can?"

That's only one of several fronts on which fractals are being investigated. Another study getting under way will test infants to see if they react to fractal patterns as adults do, to better determine whether the patterns are wired in our brains from birth or acquired as we grow. Other experiments are looking at why people consider certain fractals more "natural" than others and whether there are fractal patterns in different kinds of human movement.

And down the road, Taylor hopes to use the UO's MRI and electroencephalography lab to paint a more complete picture of what happens in the brain when we look at fractals.

In the end, Taylor hopes to come up with some kind of unified theory of fractals, something that gets at the underlying reason for the patterns as well as how they influence us and how we can adapt them for new uses. It's a huge undertaking, but so far things have been falling into place

"There's lots of practical challenges, but everything is edging in our favor," he said. "We're kind of piecing it all together."


Gavin Hall drips paint onto paper to see if others can simulate the patterns of artist Jackson Pollock, whose work has drawn the attention of physicists. UO researchers are studying the patterns- within-patterns that humans find soothing - and are trying to create some themselves.
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Title Annotation:Higher Education; Research finds that images of intricacy such as those found in nature cut stress
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 10, 2004
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