Box of Rain



Box of Rain

[When] the myopia had become stationary, change of air—a sea voyage if possible—should be prescribed.


She promised us south rooms with a view close together, instead of which here are north rooms, looking into a courtyard, and a long way apart. Oh, Lucy!


One of the serious risks of city living are other drivers. Although our brains have long been hardwired to fear snakes and spiders, they are remarkably less attuned to the dangers of two-ton vehicles. Instead of dreaming about things that slither in the night, we really should be having nightmares about Yellow Cab, but the Freudians wouldn’t have nearly as much fun. Two years ago, my seventy-five-year-old father was walking to work in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, when he was struck by a car traveling 35 miles per hour. The accident was probably a combination of inattentive walking and inattentive driving, although my father was found solely at fault because he wasn’t in the crosswalk.

In the intensive care unit at Bethesda Suburban, the nurses were shaking their heads. This was the third pedestrian accident they’d seen that week. In D.C. alone, there are over 800 such accidents a year and the number is rising despite more speed cameras. Dad suffered seven broken bones and a traumatic brain injury, and nobody could predict how well, or if, he’d recover. At first, he looked good, still tan and strong in the starchy, space-age hospital unit as though he’d mistakenly landed on the wrong stage set, but that soon changed. He was in terrible pain, unable to eat, and very confused. He couldn’t understand language and he was capable of muttering only the phrase “condo fee” over and over. He didn’t know where he was and he kept trying to pull his various tubes out and bolt. He was, in the unexpected lingo of the hospital, “an elopement risk.”

I’d already lost one parent and I didn’t want to lose another. After two weeks in the ICU, he was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital known for achievements in neurology. Because of its high concentration of medical researchers, facilities and experience with everyone from returning veterans to gunshot victims, Washington, D.C., is an excellent place to have a brain injury. The belief is that if you rehab early and hard, you can recover much function.

This is the man who taught me to love nature, to cross rivers by jumping on rocks, to lean my weight out while scampering down a boulder, to tack a sunfish and to steady a canoe. This is the man who, even in New York City, would scurry us up to the bleak, tar-covered roof to watch the orange sun dip beyond the Hudson River. Every year for Christmas, he made me a book about our wilderness trips the previous summer. They were filled with grainy images of river rapids and rock cliffs. The one from 1978 is titled “Adventurous.” In his acknowledgments, he calls me out. “This is specially written for her. It is printed in a limited edition with only one copy.” For a long time these books were sort of painful in an embarrassing way for me to read. My father’s earnestness, his sentimentality, my eye-rolling adolescence. But reading them now, I find they are full of insight into our divorced family and the role that the natural world played in his mental landscape.

In 1979, I was twelve and Dad was in the midst of a difficult relationship with a girlfriend. We spent a couple of weeks paddling the wilderness lakes around the Canada-Minnesota border. A picture from that trip shows us sitting on a broad boulder by the shore, sharing a huge loaf of bread. I am wearing my new Swiss Army knife on a lanyard around my waist. My father, deep in his Grape Nuts phase, is tan and lithe, bearded, long-haired and shirtless. “This year more than ever finding extraordinary solace in these odysseys with my daughter,” he wrote that year. “Early in the trip, my head was still full of dilemmas to be resolved. I was less accessible, more quick to anger. Yet as the events of the trip developed, my anxieties became less severe and I started to feel some measure of balance. I felt a peace such as I had not known for many months. What is it about me and water?”

Dad grew up climbing trees in Richmond, Virginia, and tending the family’s victory garden. Blessed with good health his whole life, he was never long without walks or other adventures in nature. Now this had changed. There are few places farther removed from natural landscapes than a typical hospital room. Because I was researching this book at the time of his accident, I knew enough to request a bed near a window for his long stay in rehab.

I had, for example, come across Florence Nightingale’s famous nursing textbook from 155 years ago: “It is the unqualified result of all my experience with the sick, that second only to their need of fresh air is their need of light,” she wrote. “It is a curious thing to observe how almost all patients lie with their faces turned to the light, exactly as plants always make their way towards the light.” I’d read Oliver Sacks’s account of recovering from a serious leg injury after he’d fallen down a cliff in Norway while being chased by a bull (not all writers live such exciting lives). After many weeks in the hospital he finally went outside, where he would “fondle the living plants. Some essential connection and communion with nature was re-established after the horrible isolation and alienation I had known. Some part of me came alive.” Even if my father couldn’t name the objects he could see, the sunlight and the trees and the birdsong might somehow reach him.

We’ve looked at smell and sound. Now it’s time to tackle our strongest sensory system for processing the world around us: the visual. Its impact on our emotional and physiological states can also be immediate and powerful. One of the first people to study the health consequences of a room with a view was psychologist and architect Roger Ulrich, the researcher who wondered in the mid-1980s why people went out of their way to drive on tree-lined roads and who measured alpha brain waves in subjects looking at nature slides. After those initial, promising results, he was curious about effects in the real world, so he turned to a suburban hospital in Pennsylvania. Like Sacks, he knew from personal experience that nature could play a role in healing. As a child, he suffered recurring bouts of painful kidney disease. During long periods at home in bed, he drew great, inexplicable comfort from a pine tree outside his window. Later, as a young scientist, he wanted to test his hypothesis that nature views could reduce patient stress and lead to better clinical outcomes. He was aware of a study from 1981 showing that prisoners in Michigan whose cells faced rolling farmland and trees (instead of a barren courtyard on the other side of the facility) had fewer sick-call visits overall.

Ulrich examined the records of gallbladder-surgery patients over half a dozen years, some of whom had been assigned to rooms with a window view of trees and some who looked out onto a brick wall. He found that the patients with the green views needed fewer postoperative days in the hospital, requested less pain medication and were described in nurses’ notes as having better attitudes. Published in Science in 1984, the study made a splash and has been cited by thousands of researchers. If you’ve ever noticed a nature photograph on the ceiling or walls of your dentist’s exam room, you have Ulrich to thank.

SINCE THEN, WINDOW STUDIES have examined everything from schools to office buildings to housing projects. They have shown that nature views support increased worker productivity, less job stress, higher academic grades and test scores and less aggression in inner-city residents. The studies measure something different and far less ambitious than a full sensory immersion in a hinoki forest. They look at “accidental nature,” the exposure you get without trying. It’s the mere blot of green glimpsed on the way to the laundry or between sentence diagrams. Some of the studies are small and seem vulnerable to confounding factors. Perhaps people who are wealthier, healthier and happier to begin with prefer to be closer to nature? The best studies, though, are large and designed to weed out competing factors.

Frances Kuo, yet another academic spawn of the Kaplans at Michigan, is a psychologist who now runs the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She was interested in constructing experiments to test the logical playing-out of Kaplans’ Attention Restoration Theory. If our brains get fatigued by too much direct attention, and if that makes us irritable, then wouldn’t we also be more likely to become violent? Could spending time looking at nature make us less violent, and if so, would a simple view out a window be enough to make a difference? Among her seminal studies were some from the early 2000s looking at views, violence and cognition at the brutalist Robert Taylor housing project (now razed) in Chicago. Some of the buildings faced barren asphalt streetscapes and some faced modest lawns dotted with trees. Residents were randomly assigned to apartments and shared equally dismal levels of poverty, drug use, education attainment and employment status. It was a perfect window-view laboratory.

Kuo and her colleague, William Sullivan, interviewed 145 female residents (most of the units were occupied by single mothers) and found that those with the asphalt views reported higher levels of psychological aggression, mild violence and severe violence than their tree-view counterparts. In a separate study, the asphalt viewers also reported more procrastination behaviors and assessed their life challenges as more severe and longer lasting. Kuo and Sullivan knew that aggression is linked to impulsivity, so they undertook another study of children in the Robert Taylor complex. They found that those living with the barren views were less able to control impulsive behavior, resist distractions and delay gratification. The results applied to girls but not to boys, which Kuo attributed to the fact that the girls were likely spending more time indoors where the views mattered. Because these findings were based on questionnaires, Kuo and Sullivan wanted a more objective measure, so next they turned to police reports. These were tied to a different Chicago housing project, Ida B. Wells, which was distinguished by a series of courtyards ranging from no greenery to mixed concrete/greenery to a pretty lush landscape with grass and trees. Analyzing 98 buildings over two years, they found a striking correlation between the level of greenery and the number of assaults, homicides, vehicle thefts, burglary and arson. Compared to buildings with low amounts of vegetation, those with medium levels experienced 42 percent fewer total crimes, and the contrast between lowest and highest levels of vegetation was even more pronounced. Buildings with the most green views saw 48 percent fewer property crimes and 56 percent fewer violent crimes than buildings with the least greenery.

Kuo didn’t think it was the greenery alone that was magically lulling people into peace and harmony; rather, in the case of Ida B. Wells, it was that the prettier courtyards drew residents outside, where they got to know each other and could keep an eye out. The researchers had also tested how often residents used the courtyards and asked them what they thought of their neighbors. The greener-courtyard residents reported their neighbors were more concerned with helping and supporting one another, had stronger feelings of belonging, engaged in more social activities and had more visitors.

The Kuo findings were backed up by a Dutch study of over 10,000 households that found people of similar incomes living near more vegetation experienced less loneliness, and by an office study showing that subjects in rooms with potted plants were more generous to others when asked to distribute five dollars than those in a room without plants. (Potted plants! Someone really ought to deck out the halls of Congress with ficuses.) For some reason, social psychologists like to study road rage, and even here, the evidence for tree views making us nicer appears strong. In these studies and in others, the greenery appeared to be leading to prosocial behaviors and a stronger sense of community. Frederick Law Olmsted suspected as much.

“I am not historically a nature lover,” Kuo told me. “I had no personal intuition when I started that these findings would come out the way they have. But twenty years later, I have convinced myself.”

ALTHOUGH THESE STUDIES point to real health and behavioral effects from nearby nature, they don’t explain how merely looking at some shrubbery—as opposed to a full sensory immersion in nature—makes us healthier and nicer. For that, the visuals need to be broken down. Enter nanoparticle physicist Richard Taylor. Like Ulrich’s, his quest starts with a meaningful childhood experience. When Taylor was ten years old and growing up in England, he chanced upon a catalogue of Jackson Pollock paintings. He was mesmerized, or perhaps a better word is Pollockized. Franz Mesmer, the crackpot eighteenth-century physician, posited the existence of animal magnetism between inanimate and animate objects. Pollock’s abstractions also seemed to elicit a certain mental state in the viewer. Today, in his fifties, Taylor is positively da Vincian in his range of pursuits—besides his day job in nanoparticle physics, he is also a painter and photographer with two art degrees—but his long, curly hair looks more Newtonian. His hair is so remarkable that the University of Oregon, where he works, once Photoshopped it out of a publication. Perhaps the marketing department considered it a distraction, as Eugene isn’t exactly known for conservative dress standards. Come to think of it, my high school physics teacher had exactly this hairstyle. Must be a thing.

Taylor never lost his interest—obsession, really—in Jackson Pollock. While at the Manchester School of Art, he built a rickety pendulum that splattered paint when the wind blew because he wanted to see how “nature” painted and if it ended up looking like a Pollock (it did). He made his way to Oregon’s physics department to study the most efficient ways to move electricity: in multiple tributaries like those found in river systems, or lung bronchi, or cortical neurons. When electrical currents move through things like televisions, the march of electrons is orderly. But in newer tiny devices that might be only a hundred times larger than an atom, the order of currents breaks down. It is more like ordered chaos. The patterns of the currents, like those branches in lungs and neurons, are actually fractal, which means they repeat at different scales. Now he’s using “bioinspiration” to design a better solar panel. If nature’s solar panels—trees and plants—are branched, why not manufactured panels? He frequently paddles around Eugene’s Waldo Lake when he’s chewing on a problem.

Several years ago Taylor wrote an essay describing a seminal insight: “The more I looked at fractal patterns, the more I was reminded of Pollock’s poured paintings. And when I looked at his paintings, I noticed that the paint splatters seemed to spread across his canvases like the flow of electricity through our devices.” Using instruments designed to measure electrical currents, he examined a series of Pollocks and found that the paintings were indeed fractal. It was a little like discovering your favorite aunt speaks a secret, ancient language. “Pollock painted nature’s fractals twenty-five years ahead of their scientific discovery!” He published the finding in the journal Nature in 1999, creating a stir in the worlds of both art and physics.

Benoit Mandelbrot first coined the term “fractal” in 1975, discovering that simple mathematic rules apply to a vast array of things that looked visually complex or chaotic. As he proved, fractal patterns were often found in nature’s roughness—in clouds, coastlines, plant leaves, ocean waves, the rise and fall of the Nile River, and in the clustering of galaxies. To understand fractal patterns at different scales, picture a trunk of a tree and a branch: they might contain the same angles as that same branch and a smaller branch, as well as the converging veins of the leaf on that branch. And so on. You can have fractals within chaos, or you can have fractals creating what looks like chaos. When I look at the equations describing these relationships, my eyeballs spin, but to a mathematician they are clear, consistent and beautiful. Arthur C. Clarke described the Mandelbrot set (a beetlelike drawing that illustrates these equations) as being “one of the most astonishing discoveries in the entire history of mathematics.”

Although true fractal patterns occur quite commonly in landscapes, in space and in living creatures, even potato mold, they are rare in abstract art. So rare that when a trove of previously unknown paintings was discovered in a storage locker belonging to a family friend of Pollock’s in 2002, Taylor was called in to verify their authenticity. There was much at stake. If the paintings were really Pollocks, they were worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Taylor’s computer analysis showed the paintings did not in fact exhibit Pollock’s signature fractal geometry. The physicist concluded they were fake. It was a bold and controversial assessment, but later validated when chemical analysis proved some of the paints were manufactured too recently to be used by the artist, much to Taylor’s relief. Fractals had interrupted one of the boldest forgery plots of all time.

Taylor was curious to know if there was a scientific reason people love Pollocks so much. Was it the same reason everyone was installing fractals as screen savers and flocking to stoner light shows at the planetarium? Could great works of art really be reduced to some eye-pleasing nonlinear equation? Only a physicist would dare ask. If this breed is not daunted by the origins of the universe, it certainly isn’t by abstract expressionism. So Taylor ran experiments to gauge people’s physiological response to viewing images with similar fractal geometries. The early work was funded by NASA, which wanted to decorate space stations with stress-reducing images (but, interestingly, not images that reminded astronauts of faraway Earth, because that would be too sad-making). Taylor measured people’s skin conductance and found that they recovered from stress 60 percent better when viewing computer images with a mathematical fractal dimension (called D) of between 1.3 and 1.5. D measures the ratio of the large, coarse patterns (the coastline seen from a plane, the main trunk of a tree, Pollock’s big-sweep splatters) to the fine ones (dunes, rocks, branches, leaves, Pollock’s micro flick splatters). Fractal dimension is typically notated as a number between 1 and 2; the more complex the image, the higher the D.

After the NASA work, Taylor went deeper. He and Caroline Hagerhäll, a Swedish environmental psychologist with a specialty in human aesthetic perception, converted a series of nature photos into a simplistic representation of land forms’ fractal silhouettes against the sky. They found that people overwhelmingly preferred images with a low to mid-range D (between 1.3 and 1.5). Did preference reflect some sort of mental state? To find out, they used EEG to measure people’s brain waves while viewing geometric fractal images. They discovered that in that same dimensional “magic zone,” the subjects’ frontal lobes easily produced those elusive and prized alpha brain waves of a wakefully relaxed state. This occurred even when people looked at the images for only one minute. EEG measures waves, or electrical frequency, but it doesn’t precisely map the active real estate in the brain. For that, Taylor has now turned to functional MRI, which shows exactly the parts of the brain working hardest by following the blood flow. Preliminary results show that mid-range fractals activate some brain regions that you might expect, such as the ventrolateral cortex (involved with high-level visual processing) and the dorsolateral cortex, which codes spatial long-term memory. But these fractals also engage the parahippocampus, which is involved with regulating emotions and is also highly active while listening to music. To Taylor, this is a cool finding. “We were delighted to find [mid-range fractals] are similar to music,” he said. In other words, looking at an ocean might have a similar effect on us emotionally as listening to Brahms.

To hear Taylor describe it, Pollock was actually painting nature in his abstractions, the natural law of fractals. Taylor believes our brains recognize that kinship to the natural world, and they do it fast. Pollock’s favored dimension is similar to trees, snowflakes and mineral veins. “We’ve analyzed the Pollock patterns with computers and compared them to forests, and they are exactly the same,” said Taylor. This dimension does more than lull us; it can engage us, awe us and make us self-reflect. “Furthermore,” explained Taylor, “the exposure only has to be ‘environmental’—they don’t need to stare directly at the pattern. A person will receive the effect, for example, walking down a corridor with the patterns on the wall.” Or, presumably, working by a window. Taylor does not know how long these positive effects last, but he’s working with medical researchers to see whether it’s possible to restore some brain functionality in stroke victims by exposing them to fractals.

But why is the mid-range of D (remember, that’s the ratio of large to small patterns) so magical and so highly preferred among most people? What, for example, leads people like my father to warble in one of his homemade books: “Big raindrops hit the water making symmetrical patterns of crosses surrounded by bubbles. Surreal and very moving. The quiet visual effects are making the patterns of the world seem very different. It is as if to experience the world in a new way . . . not with words but with images.”

Many patterns in nature fall into the low-to-mid range, including clouds and landscapes. Taylor and Hagerhäll have an interesting theory, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with a romantic yearning for Arcadia. In addition to lungs, capillaries and neurons, another human system is branched into fractals: the movement of the eye’s retina. When Taylor and Hagerhäll used an eye-tracking machine to measure precisely where people’s pupils were focusing on projected images (of Pollock paintings, for example, but also other things), he saw that the pupils used a search pattern that was itself fractal. The eyes first scanned the big elements in the scene and then made micro passes in smaller versions of the big scans, and it does this in a mid-range D. Interestingly, if you draw a line over the tracks animals make to forage food such as albatrosses surveying the ocean, you also get this fractal pattern of search trajectories. It’s simply an efficient search strategy, said Taylor. Other scientists have found this D range elicits our best, fastest ability to name and perceive objects, something our brains do when facing new visual information. This is a critical task; we need to assess quickly what’s friendly and what’s dangerous, among other things. If a scene is too complicated, like a city intersection, we can’t easily take it all in, and that in turn leads to some discomfort, even if subconsciously. It makes sense that our visual cortex would feel most at home among the most common natural features we evolved alongside, like raindrops falling on a lake.

“Your visual system is in some way hardwired to understand fractals,” said Taylor. “The stress-reduction is triggered by a physiological resonance that occurs when the fractal structure of the eye matches that of the fractal image being viewed.” So perhaps our comfort in nature is not really about an innate love for living things or the physical frisson of a good view— it’s simply about fluent visual processing. It’s about an easy congruence in the way the outside stimulus (the tree) is processed internally by our neurons. Taylor uses the word “resonance” instead of congruence, which is interesting, because it’s the same word Beethoven used to describe how he felt when he left the confines of Vienna for the country, which I also quoted in the introduction: “How happy I am to be able to walk among the shrubs, the trees, the woods, the grass and the rocks! For the woods, the trees and the rocks give man the resonance he needs.” Long before fractals, Beethoven intuited a powerful alignment of senses and surroundings.

According to this processing theory, if the cause of our relaxation is not rooted in Arcadian romance, the solution surely is. We need these natural patterns to look at, and we’re not getting enough of them, said Taylor. As we increasingly surround ourselves with straight Euclidean built environments, we risk losing our connection to the natural stress-reducer that is visual fluency. For a lot of reasons, it would be good to bring greenery back to cities and get outside. But Taylor has already begun to think about solutions beyond parks or looking out the window. “You don’t always have a window with a view. We may be able to manipulate and fool the visual system and come up with an even better range [of fractal dimension] than nature, purify it and maximize the response,” he said, beginning to sound a little scary. As if sensing my response, he added, “I don’t want some Orwellian future where you project a perfect fractal in a public space and everyone must stare at it for five minutes. But we want to give this information to architects and artists so they can integrate it into a variety of works.”

In sensing the existence of an energy force between objects and people, perhaps Mesmer wasn’t such a crackpot after all. I had one final question for Taylor. I was interviewing him via Skype video because he was on holiday in Australia. His soft curls tumbled to the lower edges of the screen like a fine galloping creek.

“Is your hair fractal?”

He roared with laughter. “I suspect my hair is fractal. The big question of course is whether it induces positive physiological changes in the observer!” I believe it may have.

MY FATHER DID recover, slowly and then quickly, amazingly, in his sun-filled semiprivate room with a view. He saw physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, lots of family who chattered to him and urged him to talk back. There was clearly more than nature at work on his battered brain. Of course my elbowing him into a bed near a window meant his roommate wasn’t near the window. There aren’t enough windows to go around, and even when there are, sometimes the views don’t cooperate. Perhaps Taylor had a point. Wouldn’t it be handy if you could just turn on a video screen of a glade or fractal waterfall, or even just slap a poster on the wall?

That is one conceit, anyway, being explored at the maximum- security unit of the Snake River Correctional Institution in eastern Oregon. In a unique experiment in partnership with social scientists, the prison staff has agreed to play nature videos in the exercise room of one wing of the prison. The cells in Snake River offer no windows at all, and the only “outdoor” courtyard is tiny and surrounded by buildings. Its only view is the sky through a grate. Snake River is a difficult place: it has a higher-than-usual percentage of inmates who commit suicide and self-harm, and it’s not unusual for staff to perform “cell extractions” on those who are out of control, kicking and screaming and banging on doors. Prisoners in solitary confinement are perhaps the most nature-deprived people on the planet. They are often mentally ill when they enter prison, and become more so as the weeks and months tick by.

But now inmates can lift weights and do chin-ups several times a week in the so-called Blue Room while watching forty-minute videos of ocean life, rainforests and desert sunsets. Since the Blue Room went in two years ago, inmates often request to go in there when they want to calm down. Said Renee Smith, Snake River’s behavioral health services manager, “We’re getting plenty of stories from officers saying they feel like it is relieving stress and mental health and behavioral issues. We’re feeling that they’re not getting into trouble as much. We feel like there are less cell extractions, less hollering and screaming.”

But how close is virtual nature to the real thing? Wondering if the screens could in fact have the same stress-lowering effects, a psychologist named Peter Kahn at the University of Washington ran a couple of experiments at his university. In the first, he placed nature-playing video screens in windowless offices and found that they did improve workers’ cognition and mood. In the second, he divided ninety subjects into three groups: one with a real-live window view of nature, one in front of a plasma-screen TV showing nature, and one near a blank wall. He first distressed the volunteers with public-speech tasks and then measured how quickly each group recovered. Taken together, the studies showed that the real-nature views helped the most, with the video views helping a bit (although hardly at all in the second experiment) and the blank wall helping the least. Kahn concluded that humans can “adapt to the loss of actual nature,” but “we will suffer physical and psychological costs.”

While some researchers like Kahn lament this speedy and inexorable replacement of real nature by screens, others, especially the younger ones, seem more pragmatic. They also, notably, grew up with less exposure to nature to begin with. “We are moving toward more of a virtual life with every year, with video games, 3D TVs, larger, more immersive screens and more virtual content,” said Deltcho Valtchanov, a twenty-something postdoc in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Ontario who grew up in the urban core playing video games. Valtchanov came to the topic not because he was interested in nature or art, but because he was interested in its antipode, technology. He wanted to validate, or even ennoble, virtual reality, to prove that it could elicit “real” nervous system activity. His university review board wouldn’t let him instill fear in human subjects, so he started reading the dusty psych literature on what made people feel relaxed instead, and he landed upon nature. This was a surprise to him, and he didn’t really believe it, not being much of a nature guy himself. But it worked so well to soothe subjects in his master’s degree experiments that for his Ph.D. research, he decided to try to deconstruct the visuals to figure out why. The ultimate goal would be to make the virtual-reality experience even better. Because if you could, there is no end to what a couple of nerdy guys with a headset can do. “Why wouldn’t you escape your real life?” asked Valtchanov. “This way, you can enjoy your own living room and it’s relatively cheap. You can go to Hawaii without the bugs and the jet lag.”

WHEN I LEARNED that Valtchanov had eventually developed a smartphone app that could rate and categorize nature scenes and then, ultimately, synthesize them, I had to check it out. He had recently completed his doctoral work here on the featureless plain of southern Ontario. When I visited on a gray, windy February day, I could see how it might inspire VR. It also evidently inspires tech of all flavors. Although most Americans have never heard of it, many Silicon Valley gurus consider Waterloo to be their best feeder school, topping even Stanford. Valtchanov, dressed in black jeans, a checked button-down shirt and sporting a soul patch, led me through windowless serpentine hallways in the basement of the psych building. We passed a small room with photorealistic bright blue, cloud-speckled ceiling panels, manufactured by a company called Sky Factory, whose motto is “Illusions of Nature.” “Wouldn’t it be nice to have this in your house instead of lights?” he asked. “Wake up and turn the sky on?”

I guess, I figured, but then again, I like to actually look out a window. But there was no time to debate; we moved on to the Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments, optimistically if not ironically dubbed ReLIVE. The room is cinderblock with concrete floors, about 14 by 20 feet.

Here, he would introduce me to his scientifically derived restorative world. He wired me up to finger electrodes for measuring my galvanic skin response (GSR, otherwise known as sweat) and an infrared sensor for my heart rate. He asked me to calculate out in my head the answer to 13 times 17, and then 12 times 14. On cue, I immediately stressed out. Then he crowned me with a precision- tracker 3D headset, a bit like scuba goggles but tricked out with a gyroscope and accelerometer. This would capture my movement so the 3D video could respond, fully immersing my brain in Valtchanov’s virtual paradise. At least that’s the idea.

A generously sized Samsung monitor fired up, and I found myself walking, or rather, walk-floating, on a deserted island in the tropics. Valtchanov creates these worlds over thousands of hours, adding sounds like birds, water streaming, chirps, grass rustling, the thud when we jump off small rises. The movement was strange. Valtchanov was controlling my speed and direction, so I felt like I was being dragged by my forehead through an environment at high speed.

“Do you feel like you’re the game-master guy in The Hunger Games?” I asked him, half expecting balls of flame to start smacking me.

Valtchanov virtual-pulled me along a path, my virtual feet crunching on the ground, then down a hill, through some tall grasses, then to a beach. I started getting woozy. Then I was suddenly dragged underwater for a few moments, which I don’t think was supposed to happen.

I couldn’t help but feel a little alarmed. Were there sharks? Were there spiky urchins to step on? Is bad weather rolling in? It didn’t really feel relaxing to me. I told Valtchanov.

“Not all nature is restorative,” he said. “Being in tall grasses is not necessarily a nice thing. But can you hear the ocean? We’re going to head toward a waterfall, and there’s a rainbow there.”

But I was not going to enjoy Valtchanov’s rainbow.

I felt like I was about to throw up.

Later, after I took a break to hyperventilate in the bathroom and splash cold water on my face, Valtchanov told me what I already knew. I didn’t do well at virtual relaxing.

“YOUR GSR DID not go down,” he said, disappointed. “It stayed where it was. Maybe that was the motion sickness. I apologize. The technology is getting better for that, so you don’t feel like you’re watching through someone else’s eyeballs.” I wasn’t alone, he explained. He had to throw out 30 percent of his data because of subjects approaching the puke zone. This has been a major hang-up in the development and marketing of consumer VR. “The motion sickness is due to the technology being old,” he said. “It’s being solved by better displays that don’t have that ghosting. When you turn your head quickly, you’ll notice edges blur.”

Yes I did. Bummer. But I was also secretly a little proud. I was one of those remaining holdouts for whom only the authentic experience will do. My skepticism for the virtual approach carried over to Valtchanov’s app, called EnviroPulse, which was still in beta testing. A bit like a magic kettle, you put an image in, such as a window view, and watch a number come out predicting your emotions. Can’t we predict our own responses to a particular view? Obviously not, responded Valtchanov, although politely. If so, why would we build such ugly cities and suburbs, schools and hospitals? It’s not the views we mischaracterize, it’s our responses to them. We walk right past magnificence all the time, not just because we’re busy, or because we don’t see it, but because we don’t realize what it’s capable of doing to our brains. Valtchanov is here to help. He envisions a Yelp-like, crowd-powered app that can make recommendations for the most relaxing outcrop in Central Park or the best route to take to work. “Instead of looking for food you can look for happiness,” he said.

Here’s how it works: You hold your phone up to a scene, or a photograph, and the app puts it through a series of algorithms to judge its restorative potential. Natural images contain statistics. Fractals, as Valtchanov explained, are just one of them. Color is important, as is saturation, shapes (humans prefer rounded contours to straight lines), the complexity of the contours, and luminescence (we rate brighter, more saturated colors as more pleasurable). All of these visual properties have been studied over the years for their emotional weight, and these data feed the algorithms. For example, it’s well known that the colors red and orange excite or agitate people (and make us lustful and hungry, as purveyors of fast food well know), while blues, greens and purples tend to relax us. The human eye is well designed to respond immediately to color. In our retinas, we have three color-sensing types of cone cells primed to pick up reds, blues and greens, and those cones enjoy a direct line to the brain’s visual cortex, a spot of geography in the back of the head. Most mammals possess only two types of cones (and can’t distinguish between red and green), but primates, being the visual monopolists we are, are special in this regard (we have three cones). But not overly special. Some creatures, like birds and butterflies, have five cones, enabling them to see technicolor infrareds and ultraviolets. The mantis shrimp trumps us all, sporting somewhere between twelve and sixteen cones. God knows what they see, but it must be trippy.

Colors help us spot and distinguish foods and notice things out of the ordinary. Red pops out at us because we have more cone cells dedicated to picking up this color, and in many cultures, red was the earliest color given a name after black and white. Since red makes us vigilant and energized, we walk faster down red corridors than blue ones. As the English philosopher Nicholas Humphrey has said, “If you want to make a point, say it in red.” When Olympic boxers and martial artists wear red, they win more often. But pink, interestingly, has the opposite effect, weakening athletes, making prisoners less aggressive (hence the color known as drunk tank pink) and pacifying psychiatric patients. In a study where agitated hospital patients looked at a blue light, their tremors subsided.

Based on the literature on sensory perception, Valtchanov’s app gives blue the highest score of all. Predators tend not to be green or blue. Biophilia proponents would argue we’ve learned to associate these colors with life-giving, healthy ecosystems full of plants (green), clean water (blue) and expansive reflection (sky azures, ocean teals). Since we all live under that sky and drink its offerings, these hues may instill feelings of universality and shared humanity. Similarly, as John Berger writes in The Sense of Sight, “That we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone, that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course of a single life would lead us to believe.”

I’m drawn to the rich intersections of culture and science to be found in color, but it’s spatial frequency that gets Valtchanov most excited. He’s convinced it’s this—regardless of the fractal content—that unlocks the doors to paradise. Spatial frequency captures the complexity of contours, shadows and shapes in a scene or image. We prefer images that are easier and faster to understand.

In the app, straight and jagged lines are rated very low on the restoration scale compared to smooth and rounded ones. “Urban jagged edges are not so good for you,” said Valtchanov. But like Taylor, he believes there’s a Goldilocks sweet spot of complexity, not too busy and not too boring. For his Ph.D., Valtchanov used an eye tracking machine to parse how people looked at scenes. He found that while the eyes tend to linger lazily over nature scenes, urban scenes provoke many more rapid “fixations,” and more blinking, indicating that the eyes—and brain—are working harder to decode them. These places demand our attention.

From his research, Valtchanov believes easy-to-process scenes trigger the release of natural opiates in the brain. Other studies have shown that images we love activate a primitive part of the brain called the ventral striatum (strongly linked to deep emotions and rewards that motivate our behavior) as well as the opioid-rich parahippocampus—the same region Taylor found stimulated in subjects viewing fractals. When the poet and writer Diane Ackerman writes of craving the “visual opium” of a sunset, she is not being as metaphorical as she thinks. According to Valtchanov, nature makes us happy because of a neural mechanism in our ventral visual pathway that is tuned to a mid-level frequency range like a clear radio signal. When it finds it, happy molecules flow.

This is the brain spot Valtchanov wants to target with his app. To show me how it works, we pulled up a bunch of images on the Internet. We held up the phone to the photographs and watched as a small bar on the image moved like a thermometer from green (good) to white (neutral) to red (stressful). The app will also give the image an absolute score of restorativeness between 0 and 100 and code them to these colors. Some of the ratings were predictable. Forest vale: very green. Lake: ditto. Urban intersections: red. Simple buildings: neutral. Shanghai skyline under blue sky: neutral. But when I pulled up a snowy meadow flanked by a snow-covered peak, the kind you would see on a travel brochure for the Rockies, the app went to reddish.

“What’s up with that?” I asked.

“Well, it’s jagged and it’s white and the trees look dead, because it’s winter.”

“But it’s beautiful,” I said. “When I’m skiing in places like this, I’m definitely in my happy place.”

“The app isn’t taking into account your activity or endorphins or oxygen to your brain. I’m just analyzing the face value of the environment. According to Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, people would react strongly to dead trees.”

“But these aren’t dead. It’s just winter. It’s pretty.”

“There’s a difference between pretty and psychologically valuable.” He adjusted my hands in front of the image. “If you point the camera a bit upwards to get more of the blue sky, it will rate better.” He shrugged. “I’m not saying it’s perfect.”

TAYLOR, VALTCHANOV AND OTHERS have shown that nature images—even on a screen—can elicit fast, positive responses in our brains. But if nature, real nature, is what the visual system was actually built to look at, maybe we should let those looks linger. Because when we’re stuck indoors looking at screens, our eyes aren’t happy. Mine get dry and start to hurt. I went to my eye doctor for eye pain, and she was like, welcome to the club. “You’re a starer.” She told me. “A starer?” I suddenly felt like a creepy ogler. “You don’t blink!” she said. I blinked. I blinked again. It felt weird. “When we stare at screens all day, we blink less,” she said. “We all do it.” She sent me off with some eye drops and told me to make myself blink twenty times in a row as often as I can remember.

Aside from dryness, weird things start happening to our eyes in the absence of outdoor space and light. One clue was a study from China that found twice the rates of myopia (nearsightedness) in wealthier, urban parts of the country than in rural areas. In Shanghai, a stupendous 86 percent of high school students need eyeglasses. As recent studies in Ohio, Singapore and Australia found, the real difference between those with myopia and those without is the number of hours they spend outside. Sunlight stimulates the release of dopamine from the retina, which in turn appears to prevent the eyeball from growing too oblong. Indoor and outdoor light are totally different beasts. Even on overcast days, outdoor light is ten times brighter and covers vastly more of the light spectrum. Educators are scrambling to come up with solutions, including installing full-spectrum indoor lights and glass ceilings over classrooms.

There’s a better solution: go outside.

I find the intellectual compulsion to break apart the pieces of nature and examine them one by one both interesting and troubling. I understand it’s the way science typically works: to understand a system, you have to understand the parts, find the mechanism, put your flag on a piece of new ground. The poets would find this is nonsense. It’s not just the smell of a cypress, or the sound of the birds, or the color green that unlocks the pathway to health in our brains. We’re full sensory beings, or at least we were once built to be. Isn’t it possible that it’s only when you open all the doors—literally and figuratively—that the real magic happens?

For that, you need more than a few moments on a screen or in nature. You need, to be exact, five hours a month.




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