Division of Life Sciences and Division of Mathematics and Statistics
The University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas 78249, USA
Some of these ideas grow out of an earlier discussion on how human beings interact with their surroundings . The perception of public space is linked to the design of its pavement, and the perception mechanism is a natural part of how the human mind operates. The mind establishes connections automatically. This process occurs in any physical space, and it is either helped or hindered by design and texture. We will build up a case for a psychological link between an observer and an open space that depends in part on visual patterns. We claim that the environment links directly to our consciousness, which extends to embrace open spaces via patterns in the pavement. Finally, we provide some very broad guidelines of how pavements ought to be designed in order to achieve this linking.
If we wish to preserve our intelligence in a more permanent form than electrical impulses in biological tissue, we can transfer our thoughts to books; or engrave them on a physical medium such as stone. On a much more fundamental level than language, however, we could impress on open space a geometrical pattern that reflects structures in the mind. A patterned pavement has information content and is durable; it is therefore a sign of intelligence encoded in a structure that uses very little energy, hence is relatively permanent. Moreover, since a geometric design doesn't need language to convey meaning, it is universal, i.e., it can be understood in some sense by any mind that can detect it.
FRACTALS AND HIERARCHICAL LINKING
Biological forms are often fractal . Many are obviously self-similar, but we do not exclude complex structures that are not. For example, the mammalian lung is a self-similar fractal in several of its larger levels [3,4,5]. There is a clear dendritic (tree-like) structure that optimizes -- and is a consequence of -- the subdivision of the airducts forming the lung. As one gets down to the smaller level of the alveoli, exact self-similarity is lost, because different complex substructures arise as the physical needs for gas exchange and blood circulation take over. The lung is a fractal all the way down to the molecular level according to the broader definition of "statistical self-similarity".
A fractal connects several different levels of scale. There is one basic design in a self-similar fractal that is repeated at different magnifications, and this links all the scales together. In a statistically self-similar fractal some structural property is similar at each scale, thereby linking the different levels of scale. Whether established via similarity of form on each scale, or through some other common qualities such as texture or symmetries, this scale-connectivity property of fractals creates a hierarchical linking. Hierarchical linking attaches forms and textures to geometry, and so to an observer. It is impossible to link forms hierarchically if they are empty, since in that case the absence of substructure leaves too few subscales to link together.
A hierarchically-linked system can encode complexity in a simple fashion. If we relate complexity to the length of an algorithm required to generate a pattern or visual piece of information, then, if the algorithm is short, the pattern is termed simple. For example, if one wishes to draw a fern leaf or cauliflower (normally considered complex structures) using a fractal algorithm, the algorithm is very short, because their design embodies hierarchical scaling (as described in many textbooks ). We are going to utilize this concept to propose that what appear to be complex processes in the human mind and its interactions with the environment could in fact be very simple in a fractal sense. Fractal processes and designs can provide the basis for connecting ideas, memories, architecture, and urban elements .
THE CONCEPT OF MIND
In this conception, the brain can be regarded as a relatively isolated system that communicates with the world via nerve impulses generated by sensory receptors in the periphery. The main discourse among the different elements of the brain accomplishes a synthesis of the information coming in, resulting in the internal generation of what we call "reality". We suppose that the systems of organization that characterize both mind and brain are at least partially fractal in nature. That is, each contains a hierarchically-arranged system characterized by some algorithmic continuity between the successive functional levels of activity.
Must the linking between successive levels of the hierarchy always be the same; i.e., does the mind represent a self-similar fractal? It is possible to imagine a hierarchical system in which clusters of levels may be connected according to one algorithm and others according to some other algorithm. One of the most interesting aspects of the human brain is that it is capable of generating new hierarchical systems as needed. For example, a synthesis of ideas can result in a new collection of ideas. In this setting, we have one hierarchical arrangement of concepts giving rise to another hierarchical arrangement of concepts.
Our essential thesis is that when a fractal system generates a new system, it has the same attributes and characteristics as the generator -- especially hierarchical linking. Thus, mental associations that would appear at first to require enormous lengths of code (and consequently be termed complex) may in fact be handled by very short codes. If that is indeed the case, then the human mind could be using fractal encoding as a standard way of coding enormous chains of related thoughts into a single fractal entity. The evidence for this claim comes forth when we see how thoughts are naturally linked to each other internally. A design pattern may well be a representation of an artist's natural expression of these chains of thought in a tangible form.
MEMORY AND THE FRACTAL MIND
The nervous system has a massively parallel architecture (i.e., different linked circuits on multiple scales of organization all working simultaneously) based on numerous simple processors called neurons. Memory depends on the network formed among neurons, and artificial neural networks have been able to simulate primitive forms of memory function . Neuronal pathways linking regions of the cerebral cortex correlate with the construction of long-term memories . It is evident in a diagrammatic representation of connections within the brain that there are layers of structures with projections from one to the other . The presence of these prominent recurrent linkages has been correlated with the associative memory operated by neural networks .
Associative memory can be responsible for powerful emotional experiences. In response to a small cue, which can be as trivial as a fleeting odor, we selectively retrieve a specific set of linked memories quickly. Evidently, the architecture of the network is designed in favor of fast information retrieval from multiple locations. In addition, there must be a flexible mechanism that allows new information to be added without losing old memories completely. The brain's multilayered structure has previously been suggested as providing a framework for associative memory . We suggest that a fractal-like neuronal architecture provides a filter for selected memories to be stored in a stable layered configuration.
FRACTAL TUNING AND COMMUNICATION
Systems in the body are "tuned" to generically recognize different kinds of fractal hierarchies. We contend that the brain has special systems which are tuned in exactly this way. The brain's neural patterns are responsible for recognizing structured systems that have a hierarchical organization in which the levels in the hierarchy are defined in a systematic, algorithmic way. Such recognition has an emotive value for the organism in question. In general, when a system recognizes a structured entity in the environment, it attributes "meaning" to it. Organisms create communication signals that have a special structure, which is to say that they share a common language. Languages are characterized by collections of rules defining syntax and semantics. In a system of fractal-based communications, those rules are tantamount to the algorithmic connectivity among the hierarchies in the fractal structures used for communication.
Following the analogy of radio transmission, where tuning the receiver depends on matching a single frequency, fractal tuning represents a more sophisticated process that matches complex signals having a similar hierarchical structure. Brain mechanisms would be especially receptive to such signals, and would screen other signals that have a different algorithmic structure -- i.e., any signal that shows no hierarchical linking among its components. This would represent a "filter", allowing us to connect selectively to fractal forms. It also explains instantaneous cognition as a kind of resonance between an external structure and the internal structure of our cognitive system. Such a mechanism has already been suggested by Gibson [10,11] in his psychological model of "direct perception". Our theory of fractal encoding is thus consistent with Gibson's work.
PROBLEMS OF MISCOMMUNICATION
A frequent cause of miscommunication is the certainty of one party that what the other party said is completely understood. One piece of information provided triggers recall of a fractal construction in the other's mind. As different fractal encodings will have common cross-over points, however, it frequently turns out that the completed fractal is not the intended fractal, which results in miscommunication. The problem lies in the completion process itself, which gives a feeling of satisfaction, hence the illusion that one has understood what was said. The emotion associated with fractal generation could be the same thing as the feeling of understanding. This idea is consistent with the observation of a definite physiological (emotional) state correlated with a mental state such as "understanding" . As thinking processes evolved from sensory and motor systems, it is plausible that the brain still uses those networks as a framework for higher functions.
Clearly, the mechanism for miscommunication outlined above depends on the fractal encoding of thoughts, and thus strengthens the idea that the brain could operate in the proposed manner. A fractal encoding scheme can be completed from a single component; other schemes of association will not necessarily work in this way (because they cannot be encoded so compactly). Such miscommunications may also share similar algorithms as the variable emotional responses of different individuals evoked by identical design patterns. The emotional response of the same individual may also vary at different times. Perhaps, different fractal encodings with common cross-over points would create such flexibility.
SHAPING THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
People have a basic need to naturally extend their consciousness to their environment, something that occurs effortlessly when surrounded by nature. We normally try to shape the artificial environment in a way that we can connect to it. This makes the reasons of why we build complex things, such as cathedrals, less mysterious, because we cannot connect to objects that are either too random, or too simple; we subconsciously use as a template the ordered complexity of our own mind so as to extend our consciousness outside our own body. Human consciousness is linked, through a hierarchy of structures on different scales, to what we build. Such visual connections extend the mind fractally to the physical environment.
Having put forward a theoretical model of how the mind might operate, we now apply the model to evaluate different visual structures such as designs. Passive input creates meaning in the brain, which then generates an emotion. In principle, we have no control over input except movement; one can approach a source that generates positive emotions, and avoid a source of negative emotions. We can control the sources in the man-made environment. We would normally build structures that generate an optimal emotional response, using our experience of what is the most beneficial input. Paradoxically, our intelligence allows us to override negative emotional cues and build structures that repel us.
PAVEMENTS AND HIERARCHY
Everyday experience -- which calls upon visual scales between 1mm and 1m contained in the human body -- serves as the foundation for any fractal design hierarchy. We connect visually and psychologically to an area surrounding our feet. This region defines the first fractal scales in a pavement design, and these external scales become linked to internal scales within our consciousness. Without a deliberate design here, there is a chance that no connection will be experienced. Regardless of the smallest unit employed, whether it be a piece of mosaic, a brick, or a tile, contrast should be used to identify the smallest scale unambiguously. Nevertheless, most urban plazas, and indeed, brick and stone walls of all kinds built in the twentieth century, disguise the smallest scale by repeating a single unit monotonously (e.g., so-called bonded brickwork, which creates a uniform surface).
Spatial coherence requires internal definition on successively larger scales, going up to the size of the entire region. A patterned expanse needs to define several distinct scales to create hierarchical linking. Therefore, while a detailed pattern might connect to the user at the smallest scale, simply repeating the design indefinitely without using intermediate scales will fail to connect the user to the larger space. Successful pavement designs contain similar but not identical regions. An urban space lacking a hierarchical linking can never connect to surrounding buildings at a distance because the jump in scale is simply too large. For this to happen, the buildings must define an additional, larger scale in the same hierarchy. It is therefore necessary for the pavement texture, color, and design to harmonize with the surrounding structures. Similarity between the pavement and buildings relates the scales.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MEANING STRUCTURES IN THE FLOORING OF URBAN
The design of flooring, as in an open plaza, has to obey the same principles as other, time-honored designs, such as oriental carpets. Methods for connecting different scales are outlined in a model of complexity by one of the authors . The basic mechanism for linking among units separated either by distance or by scale is similarity in texture, color, and form. Similarity works via translational, rotational, reflectional, and scaling symmetries in the plane . This is known by all sensitive artists trying to establish visual and emotional harmony. The coordination responsible for the visual coherence of the whole requires complex ordering, but not simplistic alignment. Symmetric arrangements on a plan do not connect elements across scales.
Great urban spaces were built before the twentieth century, before the wholesale replacement of traditional design criteria. Discarding techniques for connecting human beings to the built environment developed over the previous several millennia, architects now follow a design philosophy that values an emotionally uncomfortable novelty, and which disconnects people from surrounding surfaces . It is therefore a welcome surprise to see successful contemporary plazas built by the British artist and urban designer Tess Jaray . One sees in her designs a well-defined smallest scale; distinct yet connected designs on different scales; and careful harmonization with the surrounding buildings . This paper tries to analyze why her designs are so successful, using the fractal encoding model outlined above. Jaray's pavements provide a satisfactory experience on a number of different scales.
From the informational point of view, an open plaza offers vastly decreased input from surrounding walls compared with a totally enclosed, roofed space. It is therefore critical to connect to the ground via geometry. Thus, the most expressive pavements are to be found in public open spaces around the world. When successful -- as in the case of Tess Jaray's pavements -- they connect the pedestrian to the ground, and thereby permit the psychological freedom to be alive and move around. This is what determines the success of an open space independently of other factors such as exposure, surrounding façades, and density of cross-paths.
CONNECTION ESTABLISHES A PHYSIOLOGICAL STATE
There exist subconscious processes going on inside our brains, which probably encompass the fractal connections discussed above. Our model of fractal encoding helps explain why we feel emotionally elated standing in a great historical plaza which is paved with some design that harmonizes with surrounding buildings. If all components work to connect and harmonize, we become an integral component of an enormous space because we link hierarchically with it. This could represent one of the greatest architectural-aesthetic experiences for an observer.
The corollary is also of interest. Urban spaces that conform to the contemporary design canon tend to be dead, because they fail to establish a positive emotional connection with the user. One can argue that this effect is not unintentional. A person feels ill-at-ease in such places, and consequently avoids them. This is not simply a matter of choice; as proposed in this paper, non-fractal structures clash with our perceptive process. Not only is our environment thereby impoverished, but the design rules that generate such environments deny and suppress fractal connections. We now have a widely-embraced design philosophy that ignores the need to create structures that elicit a sense that we are in a meaningful place, thereby severely narrowing the range of our emotional experience.
The environment is not separate from us, offering only objects and external sensations that we encounter: it is part of our being . A balanced, healthy mental state requires an understanding of nature that is linked to our human emotions. The mind is much more than a computer; it is also passionate. How are we to understand our sense of belonging to a larger whole? In this paper, we have discussed the experience of meaning from the environment, yet our explanation is limited compared to what is described very well in mystical and spiritual literature. Connecting to a larger, all-encompassing whole can lead to ecstatic participation, or a spiritual experience. Such a state has frequently been described as transcendence.
THE NATURE OF MEANING
If an image is incoherent, then the information it contains cannot be perceived easily as a whole. There is less meaning because, even though there may be considerable information there, the information is difficult to synthesize. This in turn generates a negative valence which is manifested in negative emotions. Viewers are more receptive to information that is presented in a pattern that is strongly connected to them. Information structured in this way is typically called "natural" or "intuitive". One of us has previously argued that intuition is actually a process involving reasoning with structure . By contrast, a viewer will not be receptive to information that is presented via a visual pattern (or lack thereof) that fails to establish a strong connection with the viewer. We believe that environmental structures need to be fractal to satisfy the human brain.
Our sense of understanding arises from the way we form conceptual structures in the mind. When a collection of ideas has coherence and a sense of relatedness among its elements, we perceive its structure. When we perceive the structure of thoughts and ideas as a coherent whole, we conclude that they are correct and that the construct is valid . We remember it as a guide for further thought. We also use it to guide our behavior. Ideas that are neatly linked and have a coherent structure are judged to be valid or "true". The nature of intuition may be understood as the ability to match the structure of a present situation with the structures of problems that have been experienced before. Intuition represents the general ability to reach a conclusion on the basis of less explicit information than is ordinarily required to reach that conclusion .
CONCLUSION: SOME GUIDELINES FOR PAVEMENT DESIGNS
Nevertheless, some pointers are necessary because of the plethora of negative examples of structures in existence. Even though the best pavements depend on engineering principles, they have to balance and synthesize so many factors that the result should be considered a "work of art". A successful pavement will have the following characteristics, and satisfy hierarchical linking:
If these conditions are satisfied, then a user, on entering the environment, will experience a sense of meaningfulness as all of the scales in the view are seen as a unified whole. There is a fractal (i.e., hierarchical) connection to the entire space. The strength of the component connections determines the coherence of the whole. In a poor design, the smallest elements are not symmetric, and appear as amorphous smudges to which we cannot connect. The connection proceeds from the smallest scales to the larger scales, up to the largest scale which is defined by the surrounding structures. While our description of the connection process was sequential, the actual connection through perception is sudden. This experience is frequently dramatic, and creates a definite and sometimes intensely positive psychological and physiological state.
In conclusion, we have proposed a theory of pattern perception that can explain how patterns generate meaning in the environment. Although this theory is entirely general, it was applied here to discuss pavements. A strictly utilitarian approach to pavements requires no sign of any promise of destination or completion that attaches meaning to built forms and spaces. When the environment becomes more complex, the pavement becomes the guarantee that the environment is planned to embody destinations and connections. A pavement that is designed to have meaning ought to obey the eight rules given above. Pavements as a definition of space represent the highest order of mapping between an architectural theme and a theme that the human mind can understand. Meaning in the pavement thus allows one to "know" the place without seeing all of it.
Terry M. Mikiten (B.A. biology 1960, New York University; Ph.D. pharmacology 1967, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University) is Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Professor of Physiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. He is recognized for his work on synaptic transmission, synaptic plasticity, and informatics. His current research interests include the cognitive underpinnings of the human-computer interaction, cognitive structures and ethics, cognitive structures and informatics, creativity, intuition, and the relation of mind to brain. He is the recipient of an Institute for Scientific Information Lazarow Award in recognition for his contributions to information science.
Nikos A. Salingaros (B.Sc. physics 1971, University of Miami; M. A. physics 1974, Ph. D. physics 1978, State University of New York at Stony Brook) is Professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the author of more than 70 scientific papers on mathematical physics, thermonuclear fusion, and complexity. His current research interests focus on deriving the scientific foundations of architecture and urban planning. This research program is supported in part by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Hing-Sing Yu (B.Sc. biology 1979, M. Phil. physiology 1982, Ph.D. toxicology 1988, University of Hong Kong) is Lecturer in both life sciences and mathematics & statistics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and is president of UniTech Systems, a computing technology company. He has contributed to biorhythm research, toxicological evaluation, and statistical assessment. He is the author of the monograph Human Reproductive Biology (1994) and many research papers and book chapters. His current research interests include the computational modeling of rhythmicity in cellular processes and biological systems.
Copyright ©2000 Kim Williams