The Rise of Spiritual Technologies: A Discussion with Nichol Bradford
Are we on the verge of discovering technology-based solutions to finding happiness? What about spiritual awakening? Nichol Bradford, the executive director of the Transformative Technology Lab, believes we are. Before becoming a leader in Transformative Technology, Bradford was a senior executive in video games. However, after an experience of awakening she had during a 10-day meditation retreat, she changed course and dedicated her career to studying and working on technology solutions to wellness, wellbeing, and even inner development that leads to “enlightenment, awakeness, oneness, transcendence, unity consciousness.” (She points out that there are over 200 terms for the experience.)
These technologies are being influenced by edge science, including recent breakthroughs in psychedelic medicine and peer-reviewed studies of highly attained meditators. Bradford suggests that we’re only glimpsing at the potential of what could be a $4 trillion market. She sat down with Lucid News recently to discuss Transformative Technology, how the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated changes, and where the future is headed.
For readers who might not know, what is Transformative Technology, or TransTech?
It’s about leveraging technology for health, work, and human excellence. Leveraging technology for healing, skilling, and enhancing. It’s about asking—from a health standpoint, from a social connected standpoint, from an interconnected standpoint—what is the highest possibility for how a human shows up?
If you look at Maslowe’s Hierarchy of Needs [A psychological principle describing a pyramid of human needs, with physiological and physical needs at the bottom, and psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs such as self-esteem and self-actualization at the top], technology has been applied to the bottom two layers of the hierarchy for a while, and now it’s moving up. Transformative Technology is really the upper part. It is from belonging all the way to self-actualization and all the way beyond, because the top of the hierarchy is actually transcendance, which most people don’t know—you realize the “self” you have actualized, you don’t need anymore. TransTech is for all of that.
For some reason I thought TransTech always meant really futuristic technologies. I was surprised to learn that relatively simple and straightforward things like meditation apps are included. Can you share some more specific details about what TransTech is?
There are also some science-fictiony things, like brain computer interfaces and neurostimulation.
When it comes to mental and emotional wellbeing, TransTech is any tech that can support stress, anxiety, sleep, garden variety depression, and happiness. It also includes tech that helps with skilling around human connection, such as social wellness apps and technologies that help people build their connections, maintain them, and understand how they come across to others. Finally, it includes technologies that help with human excellence.
You wrote in a recent op-ed about how Covid-19 has resulted in a de-stigmatization around mental and behavioral health. How has that growing mainstream acceptance or normalization around these issues impacted the TransTech world?
What Covid has done is accelerate pre-existing trends that were already happening. On the health side we were already starting to see trends of people tracking the health impacts of our stress responses and those types of things.
There have been more cultural shifts around the reduction of stigma, because the reality is a lot of people have been challenged for quite some time. With Covid, basically at this point there isn’t anyone in this entire country, and probably not even the world, who either didn’t feel stressed, anxious, or depressed to an extreme extent, or didn’t know someone who did. With that universality of people experiencing “I can’t control my thoughts,” or “I’m overwhelmed by my thoughts.” And many people haven’t had meditation training. But now all of this is universal. What used to be “over there” is now over here, so people are recognizing mental health is important.
Has Covid-19 also accelerated pre-existing trends within the future of work?
Yes. One of the things that was already happening is the rise of remote work. What was already happening prior to remote work was the recognition that the rise of software and automation was getting rid of rote tasks. What’s left is human interaction tasks like solving problems together. Self awareness, emotional self regulation, and human interaction skills are what make you really good at these human interaction tasks.
The increase in remote work was already putting pressure on the system to put more emphasis on these tools for skilling around human connection. When we were all doing things the way we were doing it before, certain workplace issues could be hidden. The normal water cooler talk sort of buffered a lot. For example, if someone always talks over you in meetings it can get smoothed out if they’re nice to you at the water cooler. With remote work, there’s no water cooler. This is it. This is happening right now.
On a broader level with work, it’s also important to note that when you look at the highest performers in organizations, they are people who have a sense of meaning and purpose about what they’re doing. During Covid, a lot of people realized, “What am I doing? I could die any minute.” Especially in the beginning when we really didn’t know what it was. People started asking, “What the heck are we doing?” In a way they haven’t done before. Now a lot of people are questioning and thinking, “What do I do next?” I think a really important use of technology is to help those people find what really brings them alive, to find purpose and meaning.
One example of this is VR wearables that allow you to download a VR program where you can choose, for example, calm or compassion, and have an experience that’s just about stimulating that feeling in you. One of the things that’s amazing with VR is that studies have already shown the ability for VR to extend your sense of in group and out of group. It’s extraordinary.
Can you shed some light on the growing presence of mindfulness training, and interest in meditation in general, in the mainstream business world?
It’s another trend that was coming already, which Covid has accelerated. It ties a bit into the history of fitness. In the 1970’s, before Jane Fonda, nobody was working out. It wasn’t a thing. Some people did, Olympians did, but it wasn’t a thing. Then, a focus on fitness emerged. Fitness then sort of begat wellness, because at a certain point people realized it’s not just counting the calories, it’s more than that. With wellness, people started paying attention to the idea that what goes into our mouths matters. Then, meditation came in from another direction—it came in spiritually, but now that has sort of evolved into mental fitness.
Physical fitness and mental fitness are now crashing into each other. Now we are seeing things like the weight loss app Noom adding a mental component, because what they actually have is a device that supports behavioral change.
So, you have fitness becoming wellness, you have meditation and spiritually becoming mental fitness. You have them crashing in together. You have behavioral change, and you have this reality of mental health and people finally understand it.
How have these shifts manifested in the business side of things?
We’re seeing an evolution. There’s a blurry line between B2B and B2C. Online therapy companies going public. And that’s just in the health space. I think there are going to continue to be huge surges. It’s going to start with mental health, but everyone who didn’t get into mental health opportunities, especially on the investor side, is going to be thinking, ‘Okay, what’s next?’ We’re going to continue to see a lot of activity in this space.
What is next? Can you offer any specific predictions for new developments in TransTech coming in the future you’re excited about?
The scientist who invented this hasn’t commercialized it yet, but here’s one of the things I’m really excited about: it is possible to measure the amount of cortisol and adrenaline in meat. Just imagine our food supply system. A cow that’s at the slaughterhouse knows for days what’s going on. They don’t sound-proof those rooms. They can hear cows dying for days. By the time that cow is slaughtered it is filled with cortisol and adrenaline and then you and I eat it. This scientist is working on a way to measure this, so that eventually you could look at the back of a package of chicken and see it was like, 18 percent cortisol. That might change things for you. Imagine you might be like, “No, I want the 4 percent cortisol.” It would completely change your behavior. And, it probably would make people a lot happier to not be eating stress and violence. (laughs) It turns out the Buddhists are right.