Patterns In Art And Nature Essay

"The words of our grandmothers and grandfathers have taught us Respect for the Web of Life and the interdependence of all things in the Universe. The stories passed down through oral traditions remind us that we are all connected." – Ancient Native American saying


"...I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay till sundown for going out, I found I was really going in" -- John Muir

I spend a lot of time contemplating Nature as I write in my journal, capture photographic images, or simply meditate without a pen or a camera. My goal is to discern my perceptions of what I sense in Nature. I find that the process of encountering and recording natural patterns requires me to move several times between my aesthetic right brain self, my spiritual Being, and my analytical left brain. For example, when I encounter a beautiful dawn, I first respond to the golden beauty of that first light as it casts its glow upon the cactus and mountains that surround me. I'm then struck by the wholeness of the experience as I wonder about the numerous interrelationships within the scene and how I fit. I am a part of all of this. And then I ask: "How does this happen?" as I capture the image in my camera's memory. Back and forth, I move from my aesthetic perception, on to the center of my soul, and then to my camera and my questions.

Is this perception aesthetic? Is it spiritual? Or, is it science? Clearly to me, it is all three. And these three modes of perception, which I call the "Voices of Nature", are inseparable and interrelated in their grand chorus.

Nature's aesthetic voice communicates with our perceptual self - our physical senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste. It is beauty, form, and the dynamics of Nature's patterns. Nature's spiritual voice expresses the present moment as it communicates timelessness, sanctity and interrelationships amongst all things. Nature's logical voice communicates tangible facts about Nature's physical forces and how they come together to create form and process. It is our conceptual self that labels things and comes to logical conclusions.

Each voice offers its own unique perspective as one seeks to engage Nature. Nature's aesthetic, spiritual, and analytical voices, the three cultures of art, the soul, and science, are essential partners. In the synergy of this partnership of the human mind and soul, one can behold Nature and her patterns in ways that none of these cultures could do alone. These voices come together in a harmony that forms and expands the senses. The human response is the excitement of exploration, creativity, adventure, and discovery.

This essay provides my view of how Nature's three voices come together to reveal herself to us and to allow us to engage her.

Nature's Aesthetic Voice

A human's first encounter with a pattern in Nature is almost always accompanied by an emotion coming from our physical senses – usually stimulated by Nature's beauty. Seeing a majestic mountain peak or dawn's golden light, hearing the beautiful song of a bird, the smell of fresh rain, or feeling a rush of wind are all experiences of beauty provided to us by nature.

Aesthetic perception can evoke many emotions. According to Peter Saint-Andre:

"it can inspire, enlighten, send shivers up the spine, delight, anger, frighten; it can make one think, feel, shake one's head in astonishment, cry, laugh out loud; it can evoke feelings of triumph, melancholy, light-heartedness, serenity, excitement, boredom, rightness, anxiety, joy, sorrow."

Aesthetic perception offers the power of deep focus. For example, when one focuses the right brain through writing, sketching, or photography, one sees patterns and relationships that are otherwise overlooked.

Aesthetic perception can raise questions. But, there are questions with answers and questions without. Nature's logical voice works on questions with answers – that is, a problem of such a kind and stated with such clarity that it is certain to have a definite answer. That answer may take ten years to find, or a hundred, but an answer exists. By contrast, in the world of aesthetics, the question is often more interesting than the answer, and often an answer doesn't exist. How does one answer a question such as "What is beauty?" In Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet he says:

"We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue."

That first sensory encounter with a pattern in nature is accompanied by the emotion of a beautiful happening. No matter what might happen later, that first response is aesthetic. And, that aesthetic response is usually the avenue to a spiritual experience where one connects to Nature within one's soul.

Nature's Spiritual Voice

"Even a stone, and more easily a flower or a bird, could show you the way back to God, to the Source, to yourself. When you look at it or hold it and let it be without imposing a word or a mental label on it, a sense of awe, of wonder, arises within you. Its essence silently communicates itself to you and reflects your own existence back to you." -- Eckhart Tolle

Nature's spiritual voice emphasizes the depth of intimately "knowing" and not just "knowing about". Not simply naming something and its attributes. It is the voice of value and meaning. It is the voice of sanctity - a voice of awe and reverence for all that lives. The spiritual voice evokes a search for the larger dimension of unity, context, and balance. A search for interrelationships. That search results in a deep resonance in the innermost center of our soul in which we lose our separateness and become one with Nature. That voice evokes a feelings of gratitude, awe, wonder, and being connected to a whole. Thoreau describes this as being "at oneness".

Hearing Nature's spiritual voice means being present to and engaged with whatever is happening at the moment. Listening to Nature's spiritual voice is being free of a sense of time. Eckhart Tolle describes this as being in the "Now" – completely free of ties to the past or the future.

"Who among us knows what significance any other kind of life has? For the truly ethical man, all life is sacred, including that which from the human point of view seems lower in scale. If a person has been touched by the ethic of Reverence for Life, he injures and destroys life only when he cannot avoid doing so, and never from thoughtlessness."

There is that aesthetic voice that speaks as we absorb the beauty of the moment. The wonder and awe of the color, the form, and the pattern. And there is the spiritual voice that speaks with sanctity as appreciate the interrelationship of an object with ourselves and our surroundings. That awe of knowing that everything somehow fits together.

But at some moment, we may yearn for another kind of understanding. Our left brain kicks in as it attempts to explain how and why an object is formed. We want to "know about" the beauty we are experiencing.

Nature's Logical Voice

Nature's analytical and factual voice provides tangible labels, judgments, facts, and opinions about a pattern in nature. It is a voice that speaks with lists, numbers and computer simulations. It asks about such things as size, habitat, movements, and chemical makeup.

Nature's analytical voice communicates patterns such as the center a sunflower where the florets are laid out in a definite geometric order. The angle between one floret and its outbound neighbor along a spiral, is a constant angle of 137.51 degrees. This empirical observation leads to questions (and further research) about why this arrangement exists. In fact, we find that this and other spiral arrangements are ubiquitous in nature. We see spirals in sea shells, sheep horns, strawberries, and pine cones – to name a few.

This process of exploration and discovery can become a stunning synthesis of the aesthetic, the spiritual, and the ideas of modern science. The analytical has a strangely spiritual component to its voice as it defines factual unities amongst seemingly diverse patterns in nature. There are similar patterns of order, symmetry, self similarity, self organization, Fibonacci numbers, scaling patterns, and networks across widely diverse natural objects. Almost always, these logical sequences produce patterns that have a strong aesthetic appeal as well. Fractal images, for example. What is quite surprising is that many of these unities work in harmony with each other. They are interrelated.

So, nature's analytical voice can express, in quantitative terms, the harmony and the interrelationships that are communicated by nature's aesthetic and spiritual voices.

A Synthesis Of Voices

Nature's three voices, the aesthetic, the spiritual, and the analytical, are separate expressions from Nature that are also deeply interrelated and sing in harmony. Science has shown that there are many diverse patterns in Nature that exhibit similar characteristics that are interrelated. It is almost as if Nature's spiritual voice that focuses on relationships is in synergy with Nature's analytical voice. Moreso, these same patterns in Nature exhibit great aesthetic beauty in their symmetry, order, and self similarity. Again, a joining of voices.

In my view, it is difficult to explain this synergy of these three voices simply as happening by chance alone. The trend is way too prevalent in Nature. I leave the reader to ponder his or her answer as one contemplates the next dawn.

I'm hoping to start a dialog with you. Please email me with your thoughts, ideas, and comments .

-- Bill Graham

Humans are visual creatures. Objects we call “beautiful” or “aesthetic” are a crucial part of our humanity. Even the oldest known examples of rock and cave art served aesthetic rather than utilitarian roles. Although aesthetics is often regarded as an ill-defined vague quality, research groups like mine are using sophisticated techniques to quantify it – and its impact on the observer.

We’re finding that aesthetic images can induce staggering changes to the body, including radical reductions in the observer’s stress levels. Job stress alone is estimated to cost American businesses many billions of dollars annually, so studying aesthetics holds a huge potential benefit to society.

Researchers are untangling just what makes particular works of art or natural scenes visually appealing and stress-relieving – and one crucial factor is the presence of the repetitive patterns called fractals.

Pleasing patterns, in art and in nature

When it comes to aesthetics, who better to study than famous artists? They are, after all, the visual experts. My research group took this approach with Jackson Pollock, who rose to the peak of modern art in the late 1940s by pouring paint directly from a can onto horizontal canvases laid across his studio floor. Although battles raged among Pollock scholars regarding the meaning of his splattered patterns, many agreed they had an organic, natural feel to them.

My scientific curiosity was stirred when I learned that many of nature’s objects are fractal, featuring patterns that repeat at increasingly fine magnifications. For example, think of a tree. First you see the big branches growing out of the trunk. Then you see smaller versions growing out of each big branch. As you keep zooming in, finer and finer branches appear, all the way down to the smallest twigs. Other examples of nature’s fractals include clouds, rivers, coastlines and mountains.

In 1999, my group used computer pattern analysis techniques to show that Pollock’s paintings are as fractal as patterns found in natural scenery. Since then, more than 10 different groups have performed various forms of fractal analysis on his paintings. Pollock’s ability to express nature’s fractal aesthetics helps explain the enduring popularity of his work.

The impact of nature’s aesthetics is surprisingly powerful. In the 1980s, architects found that patients recovered more quickly from surgery when given hospital rooms with windows looking out on nature. Other studies since then have demonstrated that just looking at pictures of natural scenes can change the way a person’s autonomic nervous system responds to stress.

For me, this raises the same question I’d asked of Pollock: Are fractals responsible? Collaborating with psychologists and neuroscientists, we measured people’s responses to fractals found in nature (using photos of natural scenes), art (Pollock’s paintings) and mathematics (computer generated images) and discovered a universal effect we labeled “fractal fluency.”

Through exposure to nature’s fractal scenery, people’s visual systems have adapted to efficiently process fractals with ease. We found that this adaptation occurs at many stages of the visual system, from the way our eyes move to which regions of the brain get activated. This fluency puts us in a comfort zone and so we enjoy looking at fractals. Crucially, we used EEG to record the brain’s electrical activity and skin conductance techniques to show that this aesthetic experience is accompanied by stress reduction of 60 percent – a surprisingly large effect for a nonmedicinal treatment. This physiological change even accelerates post-surgical recovery rates.

Artists intuit the appeal of fractals

It’s therefore not surprising to learn that, as visual experts, artists have been embedding fractal patterns in their works through the centuries and across many cultures. Fractals can be found, for example, in Roman, Egyptian, Aztec, Incan and Mayan works. My favorite examples of fractal art from more recent times include da Vinci’s Turbulence (1500), Hokusai’s Great Wave (1830), M.C. Escher’s Circle Series (1950s) and, of course, Pollock’s poured paintings.

Although prevalent in art, the fractal repetition of patterns represents an artistic challenge. For instance, many people have attempted to fake Pollock’s fractals and failed. Indeed, our fractal analysis has helped identify fake Pollocks in high-profile cases. Recent studies by others show that fractal analysis can help distinguish real from fake Pollocks with a 93 percent success rate.

How artists create their fractals fuels the nature-versus-nurture debate in art: To what extent is aesthetics determined by automatic unconscious mechanisms inherent in the artist’s biology, as opposed to their intellectual and cultural concerns? In Pollock’s case, his fractal aesthetics resulted from an intriguing mixture of both. His fractal patterns originated from his body motions (specifically an automatic process related to balance known to be fractal). But he spent 10 years consciously refining his pouring technique to increase the visual complexity of these fractal patterns.

Fractal complexity

Pollock’s motivation for continually increasing the complexity of his fractal patterns became apparent recently when I studied the fractal properties of Rorschach inkblots. These abstract blots are famous because people see imaginary forms (figures and animals) in them. I explained this process in terms of the fractal fluency effect, which enhances people’s pattern recognition processes. The low complexity fractal inkblots made this process trigger-happy, fooling observers into seeing images that aren’t there.

Pollock disliked the idea that viewers of his paintings were distracted by such imaginary figures, which he called “extra cargo.” He intuitively increased the complexity of his works to prevent this phenomenon.

Pollock’s abstract expressionist colleague, Willem De Kooning, also painted fractals. When he was diagnosed with dementia, some art scholars called for his retirement amid concerns that that it would reduce the nurture component of his work. Yet, although they predicted a deterioration in his paintings, his later worksconveyed a peacefulness missing from his earlier pieces. Recently, the fractal complexity of his paintings was shown to drop steadily as he slipped into dementia. The study focused on seven artists with different neurological conditions and highlighted the potential of using art works as a new tool for studying these diseases. To me, the most inspiring message is that, when fighting these diseases, artists can still create beautiful artworks.

My main research focuses on developing retinal implants to restore vision to victims of retinal diseases. At first glance, this goal seems a long way from Pollock’s art. Yet, it was his work that gave me the first clue to fractal fluency and the role nature’s fractals can play in keeping people’s stress levels in check. To make sure my bio-inspired implants induce the same stress reduction when looking at nature’s fractals as normal eyes do, they closely mimic the retina’s design.

When I started my Pollock research, I never imagined it would inform artificial eye designs. This, though, is the power of interdisciplinary endeavors – thinking “out of the box” leads to unexpected but potentially revolutionary ideas.

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