How decorative lighting makes you healthier and happier

Floral Raddison Blu Uppsala

David Trubridge Floral lights in Radisson Blu hotel Uppsala, photo Doos Architects.

We all know that nature is good for us and science has recently provided proof. If you can see trees in your daily life you are more likely to be generous and community minded. If all you can see is concrete then you are more concerned with your own status and wealth. Patients recover more rapidly from surgery in hospital rooms with windows overlooking nature. And from the Japanese tradition of shinrin-yoku, or forest-bathing, we know that trees also improve our physical well-being. In my public talks I have attributed this to our millions of years of primate development spent living in forests. Surely such a long formative experience must have had a lasting effect on us? We are quite literally most at home amongst trees.


An example of fractals, the repeating patterns of nature.

There have also been a number of experiments that look more closely into what exactly we are responding to when we look at nature, and the physiological effect this has on us. What makes us prefer one view over another? The work of Professor Richard Taylor explores fractals. According to a paper that he co-authored, “Fractals are patterns that repeat at increasingly fine size scales and they are prevalent throughout nature’s scenery . . . the human visual system has adapted to these prevalent natural patterns”. I would suggest that this too is because of our arboreal past.

Taylor set out to prove that what actually “induced these striking effects” in humans is the patterns of fractals “inherent in natural objects”. He did a number of experiments in which he recorded the responses of observers to images with varying fractal complexity, so that he was able to determine which patterns we are most comfortable with. “Our behavioural experiments [showed] that ninety-five per cent of observers prefer complex fractal images over simple” simple geometric ones, and that the pattern densities we respond to best are those most common in nature. We know what we like!

Creatures in the wild are continuously immersed in the dense textures of nature. Their eyes never stop moving, roving around them on the alert for predators and searching for food. I have experienced this myself, walking alone in places like the forests of Alaska where I have to be very wary of getting too close to bear or moose. My brain subconsciously programmes itself with the patterns of the forest so that any disruption of that pattern triggers an alarm. There is no space for idle thoughts — all my attention is focused on my surroundings, both for safety but also at the same time for wayfinding. It is nothing like strolling through safe urban environments! This is how we evolved.

Tree arch

Which space are we more comfortable in? The fractal complexity of nature vs the zero fractal, human made emptiness.

So how do we respond when we are surrounded by blank white walls? The eye habitually roves but there is nothing for it to settle on and we feel uncomfortable. Taylor observed that in this environment more beta waves (which have evolved to put us in an alert state) are generated in our brains. This raises our stress levels. A window, a photo or an artwork showing nature will immediately attract attention and a degree of relief. In response the brain will generate more alpha waves which induce a more relaxed, wakeful state. Taylor was able to measure these alpha and beta waves while subjects looked at different images. In this way he could gauge a measured response within the brain, rather than rely on a subjective emotional judgement on what they were seeing. He demonstrated that we are less comfortable contained within blank white walls.

Taylor’s findings have also shown that when larger images are projected onto a wall we prefer greater complexity of pattern. And he shows that we prefer the fractal complexity closest to that of nature. If, however the patterns are mathematically created or more geometric, we gravitate towards a higher fractal complexity because of the exact repetition of pattern.

The experiments revealed that when we are viewing these fractal images our eyes will alternate between long movements (jumping from one point of focal interest to the next) and smaller flits, where the eye dwells in one area. In this way the eye is able to gauge both coarse wider patterns and those on a finer scale, as if we are both scanning widely for predators while also looking intently for food. They noticed that these eye movements are themselves fractal patterns of the same complexity as nature.

Over the centuries artists have intuitively understood these actions: they have composed their paintings to utilise such eye movements. They might strategically place points of, say, red paint to encourage the eye to explore the whole painting as you are drawn from one to the next. They might place prominent objects at key locations as defined by the golden ratio to keep those eye movements regular and within the more central area of the painting.

All this has enormous implications for designers. Scientists are effectively saying that humans have an innate aesthetic that is tuned to the fractal patterns of nature. Yet most architectural design is based on cubes and planes! For both mental and physical well-being we need to live and work surrounded by complex fractal patterns, and yet we build white boxes!

How did we get this so wrong?

Coral Light

Left: shadows from my Coral light. Right: shadows projected from outside by the sun (photo: Belal Abboushi).

But get it wrong we did, therefore we need mitigation! One very simple way to do this is to throw shadow patterns on the wall, much like afternoon sun beaming in past a tree and through a window. This is exactly what our lights do, but not just briefly on a sunny day when the sun is at the right height. Based on science, our shadow patterns should significantly reduce stress. The rapidly evolving building standards, such as Well, also recognise this and encourage designers to provide access to nature within their spaces.

This is great news for us decorative designers. It proves the need for more biophilic design — design which respects nature and our place in it — rather than what I call biophobic design which arrogantly asserts humans’ separation and dominance over nature.

Sola Tree

Cold, blank, flat concrete walls come alive with shadow patterns cast by my Sola light and a tree.

But there is one problem: the shadow patterns that our lights create are nowhere near the optimal fractal complexity, as seen in nature and identified by Taylor as the one to which we are most naturally attuned. Our shadows are much simpler, more regular and geometric, probably sitting very near the bottom of the fractal complexity scale. However, I think that there is another factor operating here. Scientists like Taylor have demonstrated an innate pattern recognition ability in humans — you could call it our nature, which we are born with. It can be measured objectively. But there is also our nurture, our cultural learning or the aesthetic sense we acquire as we grow up. This is subjective and cannot be measured in the same way.

While talking to people about our lights we have found that they love to be shown how to ‘read’ the structure — how to understand the geometry of the way it is built. The lights are sold as kitset, so that when when they come to do the assembly, the structure makes much more sense. I believe that if we designed a light that had Taylor’s optimal fractal complexity it would be seen as too random. Our acquired cultural discernment is responding to the clear geometry while our innate sense feels the fractal nature. Which means that, hopefully, the shadow patterns that we create hit the mark for both.

Our lights have an enormous aesthetic effect on a living space, transforming flat dull walls into a lively and stimulating show. But they are not just pretty, they also contribute to stress reduction — to psychological and physiological health. We can draw sustenance from them and that is a very valuable bonus. Thank you Richard Taylor for proving it!

Biophobic house design

An example of what I call ‘biophobic’ design. With its arrogant assertion over nature there is no nurturing here!

Coral Cluster

Biophilic design: Coral lights in the Atlanta Ignition Centre, USA.

For more David Trubridge lights go to:

*The Sinai Light Show: Using Science to Tune Fractal Aesthetics B. Van Dusen,1 B.C. Scannell,2 M.E. Sereno,3 B. Spehar,4 R.P. Taylor2

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