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Fractals, Function and Beauty

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 21, 2013

During his study of Jackson Pollock's paintings, physicist Richard Taylor began to wonder whether the fractal patterns he discovered on the paint splattered canvases were the source of Pollock’s timeless appeal.

Taylor and perceptual psychologists in Australia and England gathered fractal patterns that were natural, computer generated and man made and asked 50 subjects their preferences. The found that 80 percent of the time, regardless of how the fractals were generated, the subjects liked patterns that had subtle variations on a recurring theme rather than patterns that were monotonously regular or incomprehensibly random. That work is described in Jennifer Ouellette's 2001 story on Pollock's Fractals in Discover Magazine. The story quotes an environmental scientist as saying that our ancestors on the African Savanna may have become attuned to fractal pattern recognition through their need to know whether the grass was ruffled by the wind or a stalking lion. This kind of heritage, some scholars speculate, might help explain why artists, architects, writers and musicians instinctively mimic the fractal patterns found in nature.

Taylor, whose scholarship includes the visual science of fractals, writes in a Physics World article "Vision of Beauty" that research with hundreds of participants over the last decade-his and that of others-confirms that people find those mid-range fractals most aesthetically appealing. Further, he writes, exposure to these pleasing fractals, the kinds found in clouds, trees, galaxies, lungs and neurons, can reduce our physiological responses to stress and activate brain areas associated with happiness. Aesthetics and function are intricately linked. Taylor, now director of the University of Oregon Materials Science Institute, describes research in the article on how nanoscale fractal eye implants that mimic and communicate with neurons might restore the vision of people who have lost their sight to macular degeneration. A university news story reports the implants would be nanoflowers seeded by nanoparticles of metal that self-assemble in a natural process.

"Why We Love Beautiful Things," a New York Times story by Lance Hosey, also offers insights on origins of our aesthetic yearnings. Hosey paraphrases a biologist as saying beauty is in the genes of the beholder. He notes that for more than 2,000 years sages have marveled at the supposed magical properties of the "golden rectangle" and he notes that the shape is common in today’s books, credit cards, TV screens, and the IPod, as well as the facades of classical buildings and the face of the Mona Lisa. It seems our eyes are good at processing images in that shape.

Research also confirms our response to color and the impact that can have on work, mood and cognition. A Pacific Standard magazine story by Tom Jacobs reports on research showing the green color of limes and leaves "had implications beyond aesthetics.” German scientists found even a glimpse of green can activate mental processes needed for creativity.

As The Times story suggests, good design can impact us wonderful ways. Lance Hosey, the chief sustainability officer at the architecture firm RTKL, is the author of "The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design."
Images: Nanoflower fractal, University of Oregon web site and The Mona Lisa.

Tags:  art  buscell  complexity matters  fractals 

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