You may have noticed that nature scenes make you feel good! Part of the reason for that is because of (somewhat) hidden mathematical patterns called fractals.
In The Nature Fix, Florence Williams explains that fractals are objects where the same mathematical patterns and angles show up again and again in different sizes. See how the smaller leaves on this fern reflect the overall shape of the branches and also the fern as a whole? That’s a fractal! Or think about branches coming off of a tree trunk — turns out, they’re often all branching off the trunk at the exact same degree, just on a different scale depending on the branch size. Fractals show up throughout nature — in clouds, coastlines, snowflakes, human lungs, shells, rivers, and galaxies.
Studies have shown that looking at fractal objects is very pleasing to our frontal lobes — fractal objects tend to fill us with awe and contentment, even if we’re just passing by them without staring at them directly.
Sabine Hortebusch / Getty Images
And! Our own human eyes actually move in fractal patterns!!!
Scientists using eye-tracking machines discovered that our pupils first do a big scan of a scene, and then scan again in smaller versions of the bigger scans.
Even Jackson Pollock paintings follow fractal patterns, which explains why they can be so spellbinding to gaze at.
Here’s a fun one: the reason so fungal infections are so hard to treat is because our body thinks fungi spores are…us.
Peangdao / Getty Images
We share half our DNA with fungi, our cell structure is incredibly similar, and they inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide just like we do. In fact, fungi are more closely related to humans than they are to plants!
Oh, oh! Plants are really smart. They can remember things that happen to them for almost a month.
Monica Gagliano, associate professor of biology at the University of Western Australia, tested to see whether the mimosa plant — which usually curls up its leaves in defense if you touch or drop it — would stop doing so if it was shown over a series of tests that being dropped didn’t imply danger. She carefully and gently dropped the plants 60 times, which made them slowly stop curling up their leaves until, by the end, none of them did so. Over the next 28 days, the plants kept keeping their leaves uncurled during drop tests — meaning they’d “learned” that the experiment wasn’t dangerous to them.
They even send signals to warn other plants of incoming danger.
Bogdanhoria / Getty Images
“Nearly all plants release [methyl jasmonate] when they are under stress or under attack,” artist Emily Parsons-Lord told Vice. Plants build up methyl jasmonate when they’re harmed by animals (including humans) or deforestation, and eventually secrete it in a resin or release it into the air so that the leaves of other plants around them can absorb and realize danger is afoot.
Similarly, that fresh-cut grass smell is actually a distress signal because the grass is going through trauma.
Supersmario / Getty Images
Plants have feelings, too! Grass and other plants release chemical compounds when they’re attacked, which sure smell nice, but are actually a cry for help to create more cells ASAP.
Onto sounds: We, as humans, love the sound of birdsong a lot.
View this video on YouTube
Our ears are attuned to pay attention to things that mathematically mirror sounds we create on our own. That’s why we like birdsong so much — the same simple mathematical ratios that produce harmonies in human song have been found in the North American thrush and other birds. As a result, the simple chirping and swooning of our feathered friends has been shown to produce happy emotions in humans. It puts us in a state called “body relaxed, mind alert”, and in studies, people have rated city neighborhoods more attractive when they can hear birdsong.
In fact, British people love birdsong so much that BBC radio broadcasts 90 seconds of it a day.
Naotoshinkai / Getty Images
Even if you’re not British, you should try it: listening to birdsong can be used as an acute stress intervention Joshua Smyth, a biobehavioral psychologist at Pennsylvania State University, says in The Nature Fix.
OK, back to trees. Trees can talk to each other underground, and they do it a lot.
Ron_thomas / Getty Images
That network of roots underground does more than keep trees firmly planted. Through them, “they send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages,” Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate told Smithsonian. This is done with both the tiny root tips of the trees and local fungi. Those root systems depend on one another so much that when one tree dies, the other often dies soon after.
They also have a thing call crown shyness, where their tops make sure not to touch each other, creating a dazzling visual effect.
It’s thought that they do this so that they can share sunlight and not encroach on each other’s space. Other theories say that the space prevents damage during high winds, or perhaps stops the spread of leaf-eating larvae. How sweet.
Trees also help us humans out — they can indirectly help us fight cancer and other diseases.
Kbelka / Getty Images
So, NK cells are a type of cell that protect us from disease agents and infections and “send self-destruct messages to tumors and virus infected cells,” Williams writes in The Nature Fix. Stress decreases the level of NK cells in our systems, but exposure to tree smells increases them, multiple studies have shown. So being around trees — or, at least, their smells — can actually help your body attack infectious agents. (Please still vaccinate your children, folks!!!)
Another thing that helps us recover from illness? Just looking at nature or outdoorsy scenes.
Also according to The Nature Fix, psychologist Richard Ulrich found that gallbladder surgery patients who had lush, green views outside their room windows “needed fewer postoperative days in the hospital, requested less pain medication, and were described in nurses’ notes as having better attitudes” than ones whose windows looked out on brick walls.
And a seemingly mundane task like digging in the dirt actually makes us feel really happy.
Sasiistock / Getty Images
Misha Blaise writes in This Phenomenal Life that there’s a specific soil bacterium called mycobacterium vaccal that activates a set of serotonin-releasing neurons in the brain — the same neurons targeted by many antidepressants.
This intimate connection between humans and nature is so strong that it has a name: biophilia.
Torwai / Getty Images
Biophilia means that we love other living organisms and are fulfilled by being surrounded by them. Williams writes that our innate connection to nature is likely because we evolved there.
So the next time you go out into nature, have a long look around and take a deep breath, because all of it works together to make it — and you — work a little more smoothly.
Rez-art / Getty Images
As Williams writes, just 15-45 minutes outside is enough to improve mood, vitality, and feelings of restoration. When you factor in the feel-good effects of seeing fractals, hearing birdsong, and smelling tree smells, even a small amount of time outside will do your body a whole lot of good.
Get more from Goodful on Instagram and YouTube!