Some thoughts on TheBrain

TheBrain

PersonalBrain is now known as TheBrain. (Click for larger view.)

I’ve written a few times about PersonalBrain, an information management application from TheBrain Technologies. The most recent version of PersonalBrain is 6.5, but the company is very close to releasing version 7, and this represents kind of a new chapter in the application’s development. Version 7 is still a stand alone desktop application, but it is much more connected with WebBrain, the service that allows you to view your “brains” online and synchronize them across your computers. As such, the program will go back to its original name, dropping the personal to become TheBrain once again.

Where three options were available before — the free, core and pro editions — the company is dropping the core edition, but has lowered the price on the pro edition from $249 to $219. They are also offering annual subscriptions, which include all updates to the application and WebBrain access for $159. If you already have a license and a WebBrain subscription, the upgrade price is pro-rated.

I just upgraded. Though still in beta, version 7 is very nearly ready for official release and seems quite stable. Aside from whatever under-the-hood changes have been made to make TheBrain and WebBrain work better together, the major addition to version 7 is what you can do with links. The calendar has also been improved to the point where I am actually starting to use it. I’m not going to go into all the changes, but you can read about them here.

I’ve been corresponding with a fellow CRIMPer*, who had this comment about TheBrain:

I find it nearly ideal for connecting bits of information, but don’t see it as useful for teasing out connections and structure over time when the information has some depth or complexity to it. Maybe I’m selling it short.

I do not think he is selling it short. This is my sense too. TheBrain is a great store house for information of all kinds. It is unparalleled in connecting related information. But it isn’t so great for garnering insights from previously unrelated information. In other words, if you didn’t think about the connections at the time you were adding the data to your brain, you’re not likely to come to some ah ha moment later. This is not a criticism of TheBrain, just an observation.

And, while ThBrain’s main interface (called the Plex) is very versatile in a lot of ways, it is also very rigid. I’m thinking of the Map View in Tinderbox, where you can freely move your information around to try out various associations. Applications like DevonThink and ConnectedText have functions that try to draw associations among your information that you may not have noticed. Scrivener has it’s scrivenings and cork board views.

Those are examples of applications with functions that facilitate the thinking about, the comparing, the merging and unmerging of text/information so that you can take it from one form and transform it into something more. TheBrain doesn’t really do that, and I don’t think it is really intended to, though the developers might disagree.

I may be getting beyond the comfort zone of my wisdom/knowledge of these topics. Mostly I’m trying to understand my sense of the limitations of TheBrain (and by extension, of other applications like it). You could just as easily chalk this up to my working/thinking style. That is, everyone’s experience will be different.

Nevertheless, I have been relying upon TheBrain for the past few years and find it almost indispensable at this point. Why? Because it is a beautiful warehouse for collecting all kinds of information. In the Plex, each individual item is called a Thought (although I prefer to think of these as Ideas, in the platonic sense). When you create a Thought in the Plex, that Thought becomes the star around which a solar system of information can revolve. Here are the ways you can associate information to a single Thought in TheBrain:

  1. Link child Thoughts — topics that flow from the Thought.
  2. Link parent Thoughts — topics from which the Thought flows.
  3. Link related or jump Thoughts — topics related in an unhierarchical way.
  4. Add notes in the Note tool.
  5. Attach as many URLs as you’d like.
  6. Attach almost any type of file: spreadsheets, text documents, PDFs, pictures, etc.
  7. Give the Thought a Type — make all urgent Thoughts red, for example.
  8. Give the Thought multiple Tags — Tags allow you to quickly find Thoughts that share a Tag.
  9. Use the calendar to associate date-specific events.
  10. Use links to define special relationships among the data.

I’m undoubtedly forgetting some. But the point is, if you are working on a project, TheBrain makes a perfect repository for collecting all the information you need to properly manage that project. It also makes a great archive for stashing information — as long as you can find a place to put it in your Brain.

I have three active Brains, as follows:

  1. My day job Brain. I use this Brain to collect and organize resources I need to do my job. I don’t use it much for actual note-taking (see below).
  2. My Commonplace Book Brain. This is my organized stash of information, tidbits I want to keep for future reference. For example, I have a curiosity about Neanderthals, so whenever I come across an interesting piece of information about these relatives of Homo Sapiens, I drop it into the Neanderthal Thought.
  3. A Brain for my “other” job. This is a Brain for organizing information related to a nonprofit historic organization of which I am president.
TheBrain

The Neanderthal Thought in my Commonplace Book. (Click for larger view.)

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention note-taking as a use for any of those Brains. I don’t think TheBrain is a good note-taking environment. If you read my previous blog article, you’ll know that I’ve started using ConnectedText for managing my day notes at my day job. I could do this in TheBrain, but I find CT a more fertile environment for writing out my thoughts. I also like CT better for logging notes about projects, because all notes are more easily viewable in one topic. The note editor in TheBrain is one of the weaker aspects of the program. It’s good for quick, short notes, but not so much for longer text. The nice thing is that I can provide links back and forth between CT and TheBrain (“C.T. and The Brain” — sounds like a cartoon), so I can leverage the advantages of each program. Of course, the whole system is a work in progress.

And in my non-work life, I have been using Tinderbox to keep a Day Book.

All this probably sounds complicated, but believe me, if my organization system really were this straight forward, I’d be happy. I’ve also got information residing in a number of other useful applications… but if I start to list it here I may start to cry. This amalgam is due in part to that CRIMP thing I referred to before, but it is also because I live in the Mac world at home and in the Windows world at work. And that’s another reason I love TheBrain. It is one of the few applications that works just fine on both platforms. Using WebBrain I can keep my three key Brains in sync, and that is a really big relief for me.

This has been a bit of a rambling, undirected article, but if there is one point to be made about TheBrain it is this: I think of it as a super-charged, even magical Finder/Windows Explorer. It is a substitute for the file system on my computers, at least for very specific types of information.

*CRIMP stands for Compulsive Reactive Information Manager Purchasing, a mythical malady that those of us who feel compelled to try every piece of information management software use to explain/describe our behavior. See some CRIMP in action (and learn the inspiring stories of those who have over come it) at OutlinerSoftware.com.

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10 comments

  1. I haven’t upgraded my PersonalBrain from version 5 because the upgrades were overpriced from my perspective. For personal use I just don’t pay more than $100 for an upgrade. I also think the interface is too clunky looking. I’m used to Apple and Mindjet interfaces.

  2. Interesting. But I do find theBrain promises more than it delivers. Just too many areas where it doesn’t quite deliver what I want. Especially not having serious report writer capabilities, as well as not making calendar events something one can link into a plex, directly. There’s more but it it really is almost useful. But the price, well, I don’t know.. think they shot themselves in the foot there.

  3. TheBrain is a solution, no doubt. I’ve simply never seen something that tells me in tangible terms, “what for?” At least not before MyBrain lapses into a coma.

    You noted, “This has been a bit of a rambling, undirected article…” If so, I don’t know that your article rambles anymore than TheBrain software itself does. My use of it tends toward being rambling, undirected, maybe because I’ve never seen any description of it that strives to explain, beyond “Gee whiz!”, by precisely what method it can be used to some, to any, productive end. I

    ‘ve seen commentary like yours, but never anything that gives a pithy description of the tangible benefits and how to get them. As a result, TheBrain seems to lend itself to non-goal-directed collection of “stuff”. The times I’ve tried using TheBrain, I’m often left thinking, “Oh! Well! Goodness! Now that’s a different view… How about that! So, let’s see, uh…. where have I been, just where am I going… and after I’ve built this infernal lego tower of data, what will the value be?”

    I mean, look at your list of 10 things that one can do to associate information to a single Thought. Why would one do it, when one can use a much simpler interface with a mindmap. I appreciate mind mapping but find it takes more commitment than I want to make. TheBRAIN?

    T’ain’t worth it, even if it were free. They should give it to the cleaning ladies and ask them what they think. When they’ve accomplished that, maybe they will have a way of explaining it to people like me, whose brains need a bit of dusting, but couldn’t do it if they tried.

    1. Yes, but one can describe generally the benefits and uses of spreadsheets. I still have not seen a comparable length description for PB that I’ve been able to comprehend. These days of course, one just downloads the trial and dives in. This puts PB in a league with all the other partly documented, inadequately marketed software that performs “the indescribable” or “the ineffable.” ‘T is a wonder. But I cannot grasp the benefits and uses of PB when everything flies around as though one were at the circus, with the view constantly changing one’s perspective, coupled with an inability to retrace one’s steps to previous perspectives.

      1. Not sure exactly what you need in the way of documentation and marketing. If you check out TheBrain.com, you’ll find a multitude of tutorial and how to videos. Start here:

        http://www.thebrain.com/support/tutorials/

        The Brain leaves a breadcrumb trail at the bottom of the Plex screen and has step backward buttons so you can easily retrace your previous steps.

        But maybe it isn’t your cup of tea.

      2. It’s been my experience over a long time that, while software developers and user-enthusiasts find value in a particular piece of software, others sometimes struggle to efficiently determine , “what are the software’s benefits and its key value proposition,” and “what are the key functions that enable it to provide those.” These are more pre-sales questions about PB. I realize there is a free trial for PB, but I believe we are past the day when a free trial provides the degree of inducement it used to provide. And I’ve tried it several times since it first came out. I can’t say for certain whether I’ve used it “correctly”. What I noticed most each time were the ‘shortcomings’ I mentioned in my earlier post. The big showstopper was how disorienting it seemed. It is natural for software developers and user-enthusiasts to lose perspective on “the forest” when they are navigating so pleasurably among “the trees.” It’s an occupational hazard. So, metaphorically, my question is, “My plane is moving rapidly… Why should I parachute into this particular group of trees?”

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