TheBrain 8 — useful improvements

I have written a few times before about TheBrain (here, here, here and here). A new version was just released, so it feels like a good time for an update about this extremely useful software tool.

TheBrain is a little hard to describe. It looks somewhat like a mind mapping application. It certainly can be used for this function, but if that is all you’re looking for, you would probably do better with one of the genuinely dedicated mind mappers on the market. The company that develops TheBrain refers to it as a knowledge visualization application, which is appropriate. I’ve called it a GPS system for my information, and I still think that’s the best description, at least for the way I use TheBrain. (See the end of this post for a short primer on TheBrain lexicon.)

The geography of an open "brain" in TheBrain.

The geography of an open “brain” in TheBrain.

If you have tried TheBrain in the past and not been sold on its facility, then you will probably not be enticed by version 8, which is not a revolutionary step forward. But it has a number of improvements that I am already finding quite handy after just a few days of use. Here’s a quick run down of the three new features I like best so far:

  1. Icons. TheBrain has long allowed you to attach icons to your thoughts, but you had to find and capture those images yourself. Now TheBrain comes with an extensive library of thought icons. Regardless of the fact that this is long over due, it is a nice feature, which allows you to include an additional visual cue about the context of your thoughts.
  2. Type Tool. Each thought in a brain can be have a specific type (or no type, but it can’t have multiple types). You can set each type to have a specific color and icon. The new Type Tool is an index of all the types in the open brain. The Type Tool displays the types with their assigned colors and icons, so it also serves as a key to help you identify thought types in the Plex. Clicking on a thought type in the Type Tool shows you in the Plex all the thoughts of that type in one screen. Another nice feature of thought types, by the way, is that they can have a hierarchy. So you could, for example, have a master type called “people” with a sub type called “vendors” and a sub-sub type called “designers.”
  3. Quick Thought Create. One of the more powerful features of TheBrain is its search function, although it is kind of camouflaged by its small size and innocuous location. Now, if you type a thought name into the search box and there is no matching thought, you get an option to create it then and there, and it becomes the active thought.
  4. Mac OS Updates. TheBrain is a cross-platform application. It’s always felt to me like it is a little more optimized for use in Windows — though it has some Mac-specific features, especially related to the search function. So any enhancements for Mac OS are welcome, though these are not robust.

Other new features, which I have yet to use, include

  • brain templates, which allow you to create a new brain with a selection of ready-to-go thoughts, tags and types;
  • search and link to a Twitter thread;
  • timeline view, which shows you a chronological view based on modification date and time;
  • brain image output, so you can export a JPG of the Plex for use in documents and presentations;
Improved WebBrain Management

One of the major areas of improvement is in the integration with WebBrain. WebBrain is kind of like Dropbox just for TheBrain. With WebBrain you can keep TheBrain synchronized among two or more computers. You can also view your brains online through the browser, and you can share your brains with others should you care to. Version 8 adds more controls for working with your online brains from your desktop, better synchronization, and other enhancements to make working between the local application and the online application more efficient. Ultimately, this may be the most important aspect of the new version, as the company is clearly trying to sell its customers on its “Pro Combo” subscription package, which includes a license to use TheBrain on any number of your own personal computers, and WebBrain. This isn’t cheap, especially if you’re one of those folks who thinks “apps” should cost less than $20. It is $299 the first time around, then renews at $159 annually. (Let me be clear, if you decline to renew your subscription, you can still use TheBrain locally on your computer, you just do not get free upgrades or the use of WebBrain.) I use TheBrain every day at work on my Windows PC (still running Windows 7), and my MacBook at home, so this feels like a very reasonable price to me. The key for me is that TheBrain continues to improve, which makes paying the annual subscription fee all the easier.

I’ll be writing more about TheBrain in the coming weeks.

Brain Lexicon:
  • Brain: A database/diagram
  • Plex: The diagram space
  • Thought: One item in a “brain”
  • Active Thought: The currently selected
  • Tool Bar: Optionally open area with tab-access to various pieces of meta-data and other information about the thoughts in the brain.


  1. I used to be a dedicated user of The Brain from version one on Windows. I continued using it as long as I was on a Windows only machine but on moving to the Mac I found the program unsatisfying. Really my main gripe was the slow complete search which brought the machine to a halt as the software went and did a search for the character string within (if I remember correctly) the Apple Mail program and the calendar. What I really wanted was a fast search of The Brain note content only. I was already quite happy, by the way, with search speed for item names using that lower left entry box. I got frustrated enough at one point to load the program into Parallels and use it in emulation mode and this Windows version performed more swiftly and elegantly in this particular case. I know I’m not the only person with this complaint and every now and then I’ll try a new version to see if this issue’s been addressed.

  2. I have a lot of e-mails stored on my MacBook. I just did a string search. It took a while to complete (maybe two minutes). But subsequent searches have taken much less time — under 15 seconds. For what it is worth.

  3. I was off-put by the high price and what seemed like an online activation requirement. I prefer not to use software that requires online activation (I don’t make an exception for “one time” either, because that’s “one time [per install]” and I really don’t need my data beholden to external servers as to whether I’m allowed to edit it.)

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