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With the high number of FOR SALE signs going up around Harfield Village lately, what does neuroscience tell us about relocating and the brain?

By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

Looking around Harfield Village of late, one cannot fail to notice that many people are selling up and relocating. It appears to be a seller’s market, which can be exciting. However, it can also be extremely stressful with moving rated as one of the top three stressful life events alongside death of another and divorce.  But what are the brain processes that might underlie this sudden exodus out of the village? Is it something to do with underlying stress-related emotions concerning the country’s potential changing political circumstances?  Or is it rather that Harfield Villagers are one of the top ‘up-and-coming’, ‘moving and shaking’ demographics in Cape Town? Whatever the reasons for the sprouting of for sale signs around the village, how do our brains enable us to make that leap into the unknown, to plan ahead and to secure the best deal on a house at the right time? 

The first step to moving house is the actual decision to move – a brain process that often occurs long before the move actually happens.  What causes this shift in the brain?  Usually, something is evaluated as not quite satisfactory, and the brain often registers this disquiet unconsciously at first.  Or perhaps the shift in the brain is more gradual and related to a positive evaluation, such as keeping an eye on savings for a deposit until there is enough to buy a better house.  Decision-making, regardless of whether it stems from disquiet or positivity, always involves emotion – and according to Daniel Kahneman, a famous behavioural economist and neuroscientist – decisions are either made by thinking fast or slow.  Fast – or hot – cognitions are driven by bottom-up, usually unconscious processes that can lead to impulsive decisions, especially when our prefrontal cortex is overloaded already.  Think about those times you might have made an impulsive purchase at the shopping mall during busy holidays!  Bottom-up, hot, unconscious brain activation may drive us to make decisions we may later regret.  In contrast, more important decisions – such as buying or selling a house – should, according to Daniel Kahneman, be made by slow – or cold – cognitions.  This type of thinking resides in the top part of the brain enabling us to carefully examine our feelings and our planned actions before making the final leap into the unknown.  Top-down cold cognitions are largely conscious, forcing us to stop and carefully deliberate on our actions before deciding.

So then, is it hot or cold cognitions fuelling the exodus and selling of houses in Harfield Village of late?  If people are worried about transformational politics and changes in land reforms, then it could be that hot cognitions are encouraging people to suddenly sell up.  However, Cape Town has one of the fastest evolving housing markets in the world, which allows more people to be aspirational and to get their first step on the housing ladder.  So, just as people are selling, others must be making the decision to buy!  And moving into one of the beautiful houses of various price ranges in Harfield Village doesn’t need slow, cold cognition to know that it is a hot choice for sure!

Click to read all previous articles by Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

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