How Understanding the Brain Better Can Lead to Improved Talent Management

How Understanding the Brain Better Can Lead to Improved Talent Management

Recent research challenges assumptions about relative fitness for work.

A better understanding of the brain's workings might spur talent management improvements in the near future. As researchers continue to expose more of the properties and inner workings of the brain, HR leaders might benefit from using those learnings to inform their employee management.

New studies show three interesting developments: video games have some positive effects on cognition, creativity is a largely untapped asset and employee daydreaming can be a good thing. All of these studies have implications for talent management improvements.

Gaming Makes you Smarter

Many may view playing video games as a waste of time, but recent research says that isn't the case.

For instance, last year Johns Hopkins researchers found that playing a "dual n back" game in which you constantly update a sequence of visual and auditory stimuli "improved skills that people need to excel at school or work." The study looked at three groups of young adults. One group played that game — which was very similar to the children's game Simon — for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, for a month. Another did a "complex span" activity. The report didn't specify what those activities were. Complex span activities involve memorizing sequences with different components, like equations and words. The research found that after a month, the Simon group showed a 30 percent improvement in their working memory, which was double that of the complex span group.

Not all jobs use working memory, but workers in occupations that require short-term memorization of phone numbers or directions would benefit from playing Simon, the study suggests.

In another study, neuropsychologists of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum found that video gamers "performed significantly better and showed an increased brain activity in the brain areas that are relevant for learning." That study pitted 17 people who played games on a computer console for more than 15 hours a week against 17 who were not regular gamers.

Both teams performed a weather prediction task, which is a well-established test to investigate the learning of probabilities. In the game, participants were shown cue card combinations and got immediate feedback on their choices. They gradually learned which combinations prompted which weather prediction. The gamers performed "notably better" at this task.

The import for a work environment is that gamers may excel at tasks in which they are given limited information and need to quickly recognize patterns.

Another takeaway from these and similar studies is that "gamifying" training could help impart information quicker, and in a way that is palatable to people who already play video games.

Creativity is an Untapped Resource

As more work tasks become automated, many employers are realizing that human creativity is more valuable than brute cognition. A study last year led by a Lehigh University professor found some encouraging news on this front: arts graduates may not use their skills at work, but could benefit from viewing their activity as more creative. This shift in framing helps them do more creative work.

The study used data from the 2010 survey by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), along with a study of double majors conducted with the support of the Teagle Foundation. It found 90 percent of arts graduates don't use their arts skills at work. Even so, some viewed their work — whether it was as an attorney or a programmer — as creative expression. Those who viewed it that way tended to be more satisfied with their jobs.

The upshot is that fostering an atmosphere in which creative expression is encouraged can aid job satisfaction.

Similarly, managers might want to take less of a hard line on employees who are daydreaming. EurekAlert reported a Georgia Institute of Technology study showing participants who reported more frequent daydreaming scored higher on intellectual and creative ability and had more efficient brain systems measured in the MRI machine.

Overall, the research challenges assumptions about relative fitness for work. Putting it all together, the next time a daydreaming arts graduate who is into gaming applies, you might want to give them a second look.