The Art of Biophilia: A Visual Practice For Creating Inner Calm
by Susie Frazier @2020
Have you ever walked in the woods and found yourself captivated by something you saw? Maybe it was a pattern of pods sprouting at the top of a plant or sprawling tree branches against a bright sky. Whatever you witnessed probably offered a pleasant feeling that carried you out of your racing thoughts into a more easeful state of mind.
Chances are, in that moment, you were experiencing an evolutionary human instinct that scientists call biophilia, otherwise known as an innate urge to connect with nature. Widely documented as the key to personal restoration, this intimate relationship many of us have with the natural world is important medicine for our emotional minds.
Immersing ourselves in forests, beaches or meadows is how we awaken to the subliminal lessons of the landscape. We can observe how the decay of one thing becomes the growth of another, reminding us that beauty is born in the breakdown. What we learn through these earth-minded moments is that adversity leads to renewal for every living system on our planet, including ourselves.
I found my way to this truth a few years ago after learning I had lived with undiagnosed anxiety and ADHD since childhood. I told my doctor the only time I felt relief from my overstimulated brain was when I went outside and looked for earth materials that I could turn into art. I saw organic settings as more than a place to have a healthy workout or cultivate better crops. Instead, I considered Mother Nature to be a therapeutic guide, teaching me a new visual language that helped me managing my mental health. I studied the sensory inputs I experienced outside and integrated them into the soothing objects I made for the inside. This is when it dawned on me my thinking process as an eco-artist was ultimately something that could be beneficial to anyone.
Today, research from around the world confirms that connections to nature and natural patterns are both appealing and stress-relieving. Why? According to environmental psychologist Stephen Kaplan, it’s because they engage the mind effortlessly, an outcome that many of us crave in an effort to relax in these modern times. Physicist Richard Taylor says it’s also because nature features the presence of repetitive, self-similar patterns called fractals, something our human visual system has learned to process with ease and enjoyment. Through brainwave and skin conductance research, Taylor and his team discovered that simply looking at fractal patterns in nature, whether through a window or within a piece of art, resulted in a shocking 60 percent reduction in stress. Even NASA researched ways to help the psyche of astronauts living in windowless rooms in outer space. What they learned is that observation periods of nature’s fractals, even for less that 10 seconds and with only a periphery view, were sufficient enough to trigger the desired effect of reducing stress.
With anxiety disorders now affecting over 41 million people across the United States, this kind of epiphany is why biophilic design has become such an important priority in the wellness movement. What this means is that the specific ways we use nature’s patterns to decorate our spaces can have a direct impact on our overall well-being.
Fortunately, you don’t have to live in open landscapes to realize the benefits of biophilia in your life. Here are three simple practices anyone can do, no matter where you are, to develop more peace and serenity within:
Bring the Outside Inside - Whether it’s flowing grasses in your backyard, tumbled driftwood at the beach, or unusual rocks from the woods, nature’s smallest remnants are authentic totems of tranquility. Placing those materials into your home and arranging them into some kind of centerpiece or collection is an effective way to realize the healing qualities of our environment. Having the opportunity to touch and feel earth’s properties from inside your personal space triggers a feeling of renewal as if you were outdoors.
Focus on Organic Patterns - Wherever you find yourself, look for repeating shapes. Rippled layers of sedimentary rock, concentric rings of flower petals, or winding branches of a tree all have what’s called “edge contours” that fascinate the human brain. As you allow your mind to process the patterns, your visual fluency will develop, resulting in a good feeling. During these moments, the fractal structure within your actual eye will resonate with the fractal image being viewed and trigger a reduction of stress. On the contrary, if you view a setting without any natural patterns at all, you’ll likely experience discomfort, even if it’s subconscious. All the more reason why our man-made settings should feature artwork, architecture and textiles with organic motifs.
Integrate Tactile Elements - When we immerse ourselves in settings in which everything is smooth to the touch, we block our ability to perceive the sensory world. That’s why texture is so important in our built environments. Fabrics, objects, and art that is accessible to handle activate our senses and provide an instrument for building awareness. The more conscious we are in our physical experiences, the more fulfilled we will become in our emotional ones.