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April 26, 2010


“When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganized and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet.”


In a lot of urban society’s fractals seem very absent in human designed objects like structures and even clothing. In a lecture by Ron Englash – an expert on the subject of Fractal use in different cultures – he gives an excellent example about the use of fractals in a specific African tribe[2]:

Fractals are patterns of geometric shapes with a recursive pattern of smaller shapes on smaller scale copies[3]. An interesting fact about fractal patterns is that they can be literally found everywhere in nature. For instance trees, leaves, lightning and even the human body is full of fractal patterns.


“Nowadays barriers among math, science, art and    culture are increasingly being diminished due to advances in fractal geometry.  Sydney Harris, Fractal Cartoon. 


The reason to do research on fractals more closely comes from multiple sources of information [from my own experiences and several studies done in the field of nature and environmental psychology. To do research on fractals in our daily lives is very important because it could have a social impact, a direct relationship on our mental state and research suggests that it could have a practical mental healing ability:

(1)  Social impact: in Western European countries like the Netherlands, more people live in urban environments then they do on the country side. So, for these people ‘nature’ is something they don’t experience on a day to day basis anymore. This is interesting to me because I myself feel the desire to a more natural and sustainable surrounding. We love the fast city life, but also desire more natural scenery.

(2)  Direct relationship: I also found that depressions and burn outs have been increasing steadily over the last decades[4]. The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in the Netherlands also concluded that burn outs mostly took place in financial markets where “work pressure and low possibilities of personal development possibilities where present”. A further connection to the absence of a more natural environment hasn’t been researched yet by the CBS, but seems a logical and interesting field for further studies.

(3)  Practical healing ability: the Journal of environmental psychology (Stephen Kaplan, 1995)[5] concluded that “Natural environments turn out to be particularly rich in the characteristics necessary for restorative experiences.” Because fractals are so common in nature it seems relevant to go more deeply into on this topic.

Philosopher Yannick Joye[6] claims “seeing nature makes us more peaceful and happier”. He also claims that our brain is trained in recognizing fractal patterns.

So to me it seems very interesting to back up with research if fractals (subject) – being a natural phenomenon – could have a positive effect on the daily lives of people who, for most of the time, do not come in contact with a natural environment.


To research this relationship I did qualitative research on the reactions and emotions test subjects gave when seeing fractal forms. The fractal visuals were stripped of color and are presented in black and white to avoid any emotional interference due to certain colors.

To do this I showed my test subjects multiple fractal forms and followed up on this with a short enquiry (appendix 1) addressing their emotions when seeing the fractal shapes which environments you relate to these shapes and which objects they could compare the fractals to. More importantly – next to the short enquiry – interactive interviewing[7] was used to go more in depth into the matter with the respondents. This was necessary because of the smaller sample size used in this experiment.

The experiment was done with 11 respondents. The preliminary results show that fractal forms show a positive influence on the subjects. The respondents all took more than enough time to finish their interviews which alone could explain the power of fractals in relaxing people and helping them focus on the task at hand.

Other important conclusions gained from the study where:
(1)  Fractals where more than once linked to natural objects like trees. This shows that there could be a direct relationship between fractals and nature and thus fractals and a practical healing ability as shown by Stephen Kaplan.


Knowledge of the fractal form                                                 Compare items

(2)  Respondents strengthened the first result by saying that they didn’t literally recognized the fractal form, but it did remind them of a natural shape.


The hypothesis: “fractals – being a natural phenomenon – could have a positive effect on the daily lives of people who, for most of the time, do not come in contact with a natural environment” has not been rejected, meaning that I found:

(1)  fractals being strongly related to nature (64% of the respondents related the shown fractals as being a shape or form found in the woods)
(2)  fractals having an effect on people’s emotions. There was a majority that judged the shown fractals as being “relaxing” (36%) and providing “happiness” (28%). The remaining respondents however judged the fractals as something completely different with a wide range of possible interpretations on the subject. So, a clear direction to this relationship couldn’t be found and more research on this topic is needed

In conclusion we can say that fractals, like the general natural environment as researched by Kaplan (1995), are connected to the human state of mind.
More research however on the direction of this effect – it being positive or not and what emotions fractals exactly invoke – is needed when we want to ‘manipulate’ fractal forms in design or architecture to give a specific emotional effect on the beholder.

Because of the results shown by this study and earlier research done on nature and its positive effect on human emotions it seems very interesting to incorporate fractals a lot more in human designed objects like buildings in urban environments, especially given the fact that most people in Western European countries live their lives in urban environments for the majority of the time.

Architecture seems perfectly suited to incorporate fractal designs. This way architecture doesn’t only have a building purpose, but also a healthier and needed psychological feature like the usage of fractals in African societies as shown earlier by Ron Englash.


1. Kitwe community clinic in Zambia – Design by David Hughes and Alex Nyangula using the fractal structure of    traditional African architecture.

2. Ron Eglash: African Fractals, 

3. Mandelbrot, B.B. The Fractal Geometry of Nature book. W.H. Freeman and Company

4. Burnout and psychological stress, CBS

5. Stephen Kaplan, Journal of environmental psychology

6. Yannick Joye, Kennislink

7. Interactive interviewing 

8. Interview Benoit Mandelbrot, Seedmagazine

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Judith permalink*
    April 26, 2010 2:15 pm

    Nice research, I like the idea of nature being fractals. I’d love to see some contemporary designers working with fractals, can you maybe give me some examples?

  2. April 28, 2010 9:16 am

    Interesting read. Thanks for sharing your conclusions. I would also love to see some examples, though I think I did see some on a site I was at a month ago. Unfortunitely I can’t recall the name of the site. :(

  3. marije permalink*
    July 1, 2010 11:52 am

    Thanks for the reactions on my research paper!
    Very nice the Melaku Center project!
    In Afrika they use a lot of the idea of the fractal such as the Kitwe community clinic in Zambi, what you can read in my paper.

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