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"Is consciousness fractal?"

04.05.17

On a warm September evening in 2002, two men attacked a middle-aged furniture salesman named Jason Padgett from behind as he left a karaoke bar, knocking him unconscious. When he came to, he found that the blows he’d sustained had left him with a severe concussion, post-traumatic stress disorder, and, quite literally, a new worldview. All around him, he claimed, familiar scenes now appeared as discrete geometric patterns—as shapes that under re-scaling maintained some semblance of themselves. He saw fractals everywhere: in trees and clouds, in drops of water, in the number pi. “Geometrical blueprints,” as he called them, were superimposed over his vision.

Padgett’s astonishing new worldview drew the attention of a team of neuroscientists who scanned his brain to determine which regions were responsible for his newly acquired synesthesia. But in a sense, the transformation may have been revealing an underlying bias toward fractal visual processing in all of us. Taylor believes we have evolved to be efficient interpreters of the fractals that surround us in nature—from lightning and waterfalls to the spiral arms of the Milky Way. Our bodies exploit fractal networks to maximize surface areas and help distribute oxygen, cells, and signals. Blood vessels branch out like root systems; the brain houses folds within folds. According to Taylor, this fractal-rich environment means we don’t simply enjoy looking at fractals—we are designed to process them effortlessly, and even have a need to be looking at them.

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