Rectangles (Man-Made) versus Fractals (Natural)

Civilization was not possible without rectangles.  The pyramids could not have been built without rectangles.  Nearly everything that humans have built since the pyramids starts with rectangles.  Rectangles are so common in our increasingly manmade environment that we don’t even notice them, but we feel their unnaturalness.  You will basically never see a rectangle in nature.  Nature has NOT selected the rectangle as a useful shape, only man does this.  Greek geometry, and all the math, starts with rectangles.  The Western mind thinks “inside the box” which is rectangular, more than just metaphorically.  Look around you right now, and you see thousands of rectangles.  Go out into nature and you see nearly zero rectangles.  Even blind people will tell you, when they tap their canes on the ground, they can hear the flat hard surfaces at right angles to other flat hard surfaces, of their rectangular surroundings, in stark contrast to the soft, curvy, porosity of nature.  The rectangle is truly the hallmark and keystone of our new environment, but rarely is a word about it uttered.  It’s remarkable how something can be so obviously visible, yet invisible, at the same time.

I’ve shared this with my kids and their friends and they keep bringing it up. They are fascinated by this most fundamental observation. They haven’t yet been completely brainwashed by our rectangular-based culture. This is very simple.  Just notice.  Notice all the rectangles around you right now. In nature, they’re gone.

Most folks will tell you that they like to “get out into nature”.   Maybe the primary reason we like to get out into nature is to get away from rectangles (and their social correlates… conflict and drama).  Of course, there are probably many other reasons for enjoying nature, but why not start with the most obvious.  On the other hand, in nature we see very different shapes, called fractals.  It has been demonstrated that merely viewing the geometrical structure of natural scenery, in particular fractals, produces positive physiological and psychological responses in the observer.    Maybe the man-made opposite of fractals, rectangles, are having the opposite effect on us.

Autism  Consider this postulate: that autistic babies and toddlers might be more sensitive to unnatural geometry; that is, more inclined to experience the stress of rectangles as negative and to experience fractals as positive. In neurological terms, it may be that the healthy development of “mirror activity” which makes imitation and empathy possible is stifled by exposure to rectangles (and cultivated by non-rectangular natural visions), and that this is one reason why getting out into nature is so beneficial for many autistic children. And if caretakers can’t get them out into nature, away from the rectangles, then maybe the Nature Mix combination of classical music and fractals is an alternative. Is it a coincidence that Temple Grandin sought to banish rectangular pathways from bovine feedlots?

“Normal” children  Being unnatural, it makes sense that babies and children are fascinated by building blocks and the sight of rectangles. It’s why Baby Einstein captivated children – all the unnatural stuff. But just because it captures a baby’s attention, does that mean that it’s good for them? Babies like candy too. Is candy good for babies?

My daughter noticed things naturally when she was two years old (e.g. the train whistle in the distance) which she now does not notice at age 8. Her thought (the+ought) is outgrowing her noticing. This is normal, and we reward “thinking” over noticing.  We give children praise and good grades for symbolic thought, and basically ignore the skills of noticing – vision, smell, touch, hearing, and taste.

One pitfall with the rectangles: When I point this out to people, they like to turn it into a challenge, as in “let’s try to find a rectangle in nature.”  This activity yields nothing but a good time in the woods, which is nice and important, but a topic for a separate discussion, and really misses the point.

Rather, I say, the challenge is to simply notice all the rectangles, keep noticing them, keep noticing them, keep noticing them, keep noticing them………..THEN, go into nature, and notice the trees and bushes, notice the sky, notice the stuff on the ground, notice the gaps between the trees, down, up, sideways; notice, notice notice, notice…………THEN go back to the man-made environment and repeat. Simultaneously, see if you can notice the inner world – the body and thoughts. Of course, this is the type of meditation which Krishnamurti, Brad Blanton, and Martha Beck talk about. It’s informal, unscripted, no training or classes required.  Wordlessness, or Mindfulness, it is commonly called.

The important question: Do we notice a difference in body/mind while noticing the rectangles versus noticing the non-rectangles?

I don’t have a lot of data, but the few people who have tried this tell me all types of weird things. But the common thread is: rectangles bad, non-rectangles good. Some people just reaffirm how relaxing it is to be in nature, away from the rectangles. Other people notice something new: the more they notice the rectangles, the more fear they feel……”Wow, the rectangles are freaking me out, I don’t want to do this anymore” is fairly common. Well, guess what? We are all doing it, all the time, but unaware of the harmful effects. The more buildings, roads, internet service, universities, the more rectangles,…………the less nature.

My contention is that the rectangles are freaking us ALL out. Yes, all of us! But we are freaking out unconsciously. Children are freaking out, unconsciously, Temple Grandin noticed the cattle freaking out. (By the way, the Attention Restoration Theory people at the University of Michigan have the data, but they have not identified the rectangles as the differentiating parameter. They have identified the cognitive-fatiguing directed attention required by the man-made environment versus the cognitive-restoring non-directed attention afforded by the natural environment  This is congruent with the rectangles versus fractals interpretation.)

My theory is that this “freaking out” is what prevents a particularly sensitive baby/toddler from developing the neurological connectivity and mirror activity necessary for learning and theory of mind that we “normal” people take for granted, and which bestows us with the kinds of characteristics we regard as “human.” So we get kids with ADD, ADHD, Nature Deficit Disorder. Maybe it contributes to Autism.

It seems to me (and others, like Richard Louv and pediatrition Kenneth Ginsberg come to mind) that every mother wanting to enroll her 4 year old into college is getting the cart way before the horse.  What the young fertile mind needs is love and nature, MOTHER NATURE. And the fathers are either not there, or too proud to pick up a book, read a little, and stand up against this rat race madness.  Instead, children are getting stressed out and are suffering increasingly from Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD), a term coined by Louv.

Someday, after the fall of civilization, the survivors are going to say, “What a bunch of fools. They built the pyramids out of rectangular blocks so that they could have a hierarchical social structure with the Pharaoh at the top, and that civilization fell. But that didn’t stop them: They did it again! They got addicted to the conveniences that the rectangular thought and organization provided. Blinded by Pride in their knowledge, they forged ahead, without noticing. Without noticing what was directly in front of their eyeballs! AND to make matters worse, the elders (Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Pope Gregory the First, Reinhold Neibuhr) warned them about their Pride, but they ignored the warnings. They said that it was a different type of pride that was bad, called hubris. They said it was good to be a proud parent, or to take pride in ones work, or to be a proud American, to be proud of accomplishment. They were proud all right. And Pride preceded the fall.”


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