We all know that getting out and interacting with nature makes us feel good. A simple walk in the forest can do wonders for relieving stress, as can time spent in the garden. Aside form the obvious benefits of getting exercise and fresh air, why does contact with nature make us feel good?
The answer may lie in a branch of mathematics known as fractal geometry. Do not be afraid - we do not have to grapple with numbers to explore fractals. We simply need to look at the world around us.
A fractal is a geometric pattern that repeats at smaller and smaller scales. This repetition creates irregular and infinitely complex shapes. It also has properties of self-similarity - in other words, the pattern looks similar whether you are looking at it from far away, or very close.
Take, for example a tree, with a main trunk that divides into smaller branches. If you walk closer, you can see that the branches themselves divide again into more branches, then into twigs. No matter where you look on the tree, the branching pattern is similar.
Alternately, imagine observing Squamish from high in the sky. You will notice the branching pattern that the Mamquam, Squamish, Cheekye, Stawamus and Cheakamus rivers make as they converge on the sea. Each of these rivers is fed by streams which are in turn fed by smaller streams, creating a complex structure where the branching pattern is repeated at smaller and smaller scales.
The natural world is bursting at the seams with fractals - clouds, ice crystals, fern fronds and lightning are other examples. In the human body, there are fractals to be found in the arrangement of blood vessels and even neurons, the cells that are networked into that important organ - the brain.
In stark contrast, the manmade environments we live and work in are comprised of straight lines and regular geometry. Take a look around your house and see how it is built from shapes like rectangles, squares and triangles.
Nikos Salingaros, a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas, has looked at how humans interact with natural and manmade environments. His research and that of other groups he has found that fractals qualities in the natural environment are "neurologically nourishing" and important for our wellbeing.
This theory has been demonstrated in an interesting study led by Mimi Tse from Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Researchers there found that hospitalized patients who viewed nature images had lower levels of stress, anxiety and pain. This result, which has been repeated by other groups, indicates that we have a positive physiological response to the natural world.
Our interaction with the natural world is currently being studied by many branches of science. A deeper understanding of this interaction could have implications on many aspects of our lives from how we interact with technology to the way we build houses.
Why not go outside and see if you can find some fractals in your environment? Odds are that you will come back feeling relaxed.