Why Do Photos of Nature Make Us Happy?

words :: Ben Osborne

It’s not just you that calms down when you see a nature scene—it’s humans all over the world, and there’s science behind the photographs of nature that make you smile, inspire you, reminisce on good times and even improve your mental and physical health.

Personally, I have a pretty specific aim for a photo I would hang up in my bedroom. For a person who doesn’t have a great eye for taking photos, I’m surprisingly picky. I like photos that reflect the actual experience of being outdoors—I’m not one for heavily edited work, although I do believe there is value in photos that can bring out the extracurricular beauty in nature—because why not? But for me, it’s not what I’d hang on my wall.

I like photos of myself too, I’ll admit it. I am drawn to experiences I can relate to. But there are some photos—photos I may have no real connection to, that are just special to me. Why?

If I had to guess, my non-scientific opinion would say that photographs bring back a memory of a familiar place, a happy time in your life.

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Roger Ulrich’s groundbreaking study on stress recovery due to nature changed the way we design everything from hospitals to major urban centres.

But there is also a much deeper (and scientific) reason behind those photographs and the effect they have on you—specifically ones of the natural world. To understand what that reason is, let’s start with the work from a behavioural psychologist by the name of Roger Ulrich.

Through his work studying patient care, Ulrich discovered a drastic effect on patient health in rooms with views of nature. In Ulrich’s study he found that in hospitals, Patients in rooms with views of trees spent fewer days in the hospital, used fewer narcotic drugs, had fewer complications, and registered fewer complaints with the nurses.

In another study by Ulrich, “Natural Versus Urban Scenes: Some Psychophysiological Effects”, subjects were presented with sixty colour slides of either nature with water, nature dominated by vegetation, or urban environments with no nature.

When looking at the slides, researchers tested heart rate, emotional states, and alpha amplitude. Alpha amplitude, a measure of the alpha brain wave (one of the five types of brain waves), is an indicator of your brain’s ability to be active, but not really focus on any one specific thing—or simple terms, it’s a measure of how relaxed you are.

Next time you go to a dentist’s office, have a look on the walls. More than likely, you’re going to see nature scenes, even if you’re in the middle of a city. That’s because before you open wide, dentist’s want to make sure you’re as relaxed as possible.

In Ulrich’s studies, the Alpha amplitude of the subjects was significantly higher in subjects while they were looking at vegetation scenes. Coincidence? Ulrich would argue otherwise. Ulrich also found that looking at nature scenes, specifically water, had a positive influence on emotional states.

To further prove the benefits of the natural world on our brains, Ulrich published a salient finding from the study  which stated that water, and to a lesser extent scenes with vegetation, held attention and interest more effectively than the urban scenes—an interesting anecdote and a good explanation of why the coastline is so coveted.

Through Ulrich’s work, we can see why scenes of nature tend to make everyone, not only outdoor lovers, happy. Whether you are in a hospital or not, or looking at actual nature of just a photo, these scenes do something positive for our brains. What exactly is happening though?

Jackson Pollock’s work was groundbreaking from both an artistic, and psychological standpoint.

There’s also a deeper, more hidden reason that scenes of nature appeal to us, and that’s in something called fractals. First coined by Benoit Mandelbrot, the term ‘fractal’ refers to the patterns found in nature’s randomness that are actually mathematical rules that apply to things such as clouds, coastlines, waves, and even the organization of far off galaxies. While these things may look random and disorganized, fractals refer to the pattern that characterizes this organized chaos of nature.

While fractals are mostly naturally occurring, there are some instances where they have shown up artificially—one of them being in the paintings of an artist by the name of Jackson Pollock. Pollock, an extremely influential artist for his time, was renowned for his unique style of dripping paint across a huge canvas, but it wasn’t until years after his death that we discovered the reason why his work was so cherished—the presence of fractals.

This was discovered by physicist Richard Taylor of the University of Oregon, who at a young age was mesmerized by Pollock’s work. In a research project using electrical currents, Taylor discovered that his paintings were fractal. While the works seemed totally random, there was, in fact, something deeper going on. Whether Pollock knew it or not, he was painting with fractals more than twenty years before Mandelbrot even coined the term.

While Pollock was revered for his unusual techniques and his paintings were popular at the time, his work was seen as abstract and nobody knew exactly why they liked his work.  It wasn’t until Taylor’s discoveries that it was realized why his work drew the viewer in so effectively.

In Taylor’s published findings in Nature, he concluded that Pollock’s work was both “reflective of the fingerprint of nature” and also that the fractal dimensions increased throughout his career—meaning he knew he was on to something.

Nature’s perfectly organized chaos. Photo :: Ben Osborne

In a series of separate experiments, Taylor ran further tests to see the physiological response to viewing fractal patterns, finding that people recovered better from stress when viewing fractal images. So, it was no surprise that when Pollock used fractals increasingly throughout his career, people were drawn more and more to this work.

Further proving the positive effects of fractal geometry on the human brain, Swedish environmental psychologists tested a series of nature photos into representations of landforms’ fractal silhouettes on test subjects, who responded by more easily producing those alpha brain waves we mentioned earlier.

Next time you go to a dentist’s office, have a look at the walls. More than likely, you’re going to see nature scenes, even if you’re in the middle of a city. That’s because before you open wide, dentist’s want to make sure you’re as relaxed as possible. This is just one way that experts from all over the world are urging us to bring more nature into our everyday life—there are special products that project sky-like images on to the ceiling, urban greenery projects that are taking over cities, and much more. The end message is that nature is good for our heart, mind, and bodies.

So, while my personal opinions on what I like in a photo may come into play a bit, the reality is that there are much larger forces at play. From Ulrich’s research on nature’s effect on the human brain proved, to a look into the presence of fractals in Pollock’s work and their effect on our moods, the message is clear—we’re better when we interact with nature scenes, and that’s what makes us so drawn to them. —ML