Talking About Trees

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Think back to your childhood for just a moment. Imagine a time when you were surrounded by nature. Perhaps you were in a forest. The trees towering above you seemed so grand and powerful, filling you with wonder.

What you couldn't have seen then as a child was those monstrous trees were not standing alone. Underneath your feet was an impressive network of roots, as long, wide, and tall as the branches above you.

Researchers have discovered that trees "communicate" through this extensive root network. In fact, they share nutrients and are codependent, even across species. In some studies, birch and fir trees share oxygen and carbon, and the amount shared depends on which tree needs more based on season and sunlight.

Biologically, most organisms have evolved to function in this way, sharing resources to build a better forest. People have evolved to be social animals, to build a better community. As people age, they tend to become more isolated, losing the roots they once had across their communities.

These connections with others are important for enhancing quality and length of life. Research has found that those with more social interactions have a decreased risk of mortality compared to those who engage in less social interaction.

Social interaction is also directly related to cognition. Social support affects two important areas of our cognitive health: depression and stress. It’s now recognized that the quality and quantity of social relationships are directly related to the development of depression, and therefore, the risk of dementia. Positive social relationships can reduce stress by offering emotional, financial, and physical support.

Just as the birch shares oxygen with a shaded fir during its time of stress, people also need to maintain social connections and support one another to keep both cognition and community thriving.

References

  • Berkman, L. F., Glass, T., Brissette, I., & Seeman, T. E. (2000). From social integration to health: Durkheim in the new millennium. Social Science & Medicine (1982), 51(6), 843–857. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(00)00065-4
  • Exploring How and Why Trees ‘Talk’ to Each Other. (2016). Yale E360. Retrieved March 2, 2020, from https://e360.yale.edu/features/exploringhowandwhytreestalktoeachother
  • Teo, A. R., Choi, H., & Valenstein, M. (2013). Social relationships and depression: Ten-year follow-up from a nationally representative study. PloS One, 8(4), e62396. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0062396
  • Umberson, D., & Montez, J. K. (2010). Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(Suppl), S54. doi: 10.1177/0022146510383501
  • Yeh, S.-C. J., & Liu, Y.-Y. (2003). Influence of social support on cognitive function in the elderly. BMC Health Services Research, 3, 9. doi: 10.1186/1472-6963-3-9