Digital native

Preparing for next-gen workers, with next-gen brains

April 9, 2012: 10:30 AM ET

Many of the employees entering the workforce in the next few years will have been raised on the Internet, which has shaped the way their brains are wired. Are companies ready for this generation of workers?

FORTUNE -- Some call them "digital natives," and they're everywhere. You may even be raising some right now.

They're the next generation of workers, and they include anyone who has grown up with constant access to the Internet. This state of digital immersion has sculpted their brains in ways that people have never experienced before.

"Organizations need to recognize that, " says David Pescovitz, research director, for non-profit research center Institute for the Future, "because you're seeing a transformation in how people work."

Of course, "digital natives" aren't a homogenous group with equal access to technology, and their brains don't adapt to their environment in the same way. And experts agree that much more research on the impact of the digital world on neural development is needed. But it's becoming clear that digital natives think in a novel way.

As the brain develops, it reinforces the neural pathways that it finds most useful. "From birth through adolescence, 60% of the connections between brain cells are pruned away," says Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA's Semel Institute and co-author of The Alzheimer's Prevention Program. Like forest paths traveled over and over again, some trails get stronger while other unused paths grow over.

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Digital natives are strengthening brain cells that regulate specific activities. They are used to connecting to a large network of people instantaneously and culling vast stores of information. In many ways, they're geared towards short-term rewards like the kinds you see in gaming, and will look for situations that replicate that in a work environment.

"We used to teach in a way that demanded a tremendous amount of memorization, but now it's more about cognitive agility and multi-tasking," says Paul Thompson, professor of neurology and psychiatry at UCLA's school of medicine. "The part of the brain, called the hippocampus, that's involved in memory is a little different than the multitasking part at the front of the brain." More

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