Some thoughts on 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.

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

PersonalBrain and the Commonplace Book

Maybe it is only due to my own growing interest in the topic, but it feels like I’ve been reading lately a lot more chatter about “Commonplace Books.” Here’s a classical definition of a commonplace book from wikipedia:

“Commonplace” is a translation of the Latin term locus communis (from Greek tópos koinós, see literary topos) which means “a theme or argument of general application”, such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of such sayings, such as John Milton’s commonplace book. Scholars have expanded this usage to include any manuscript that collects material along a common theme by an individual.

Essentially, you can think of a commonplace book (CpB) as a notebook organized by topic. As I see it, a commonplace book is different from a journal or a diary in two significant ways:

  1. Journals and diaries are generally organized in chronologic order, while the CpB is ordered by topic.
  2. The content of journals and diaries is composed chiefly of information that flows from the direct experience of the writer; while the CpB is comprised of information generated from other sources. As such it is a way for the keeper of the CpB to organize knowledge and information gleened from outside his or her own experience — although the keeper will often include interpretations and other annotations.

Another significant aspect of the CpB is that it tends to be miscellaneous. That is, it isn’t composed for a specific project… it is not the place you would organize a history paper or marketing project. Information stored in the CpB might be used in such projects; in fact, if you’re not using this information at some point, you may be wasting your time. But you don’t start a CpB to manage an advertising campaign.

There are many different computer applications that lend themselves to being effective vessels for building a CpB, and choosing one has been a little difficult, but I’ve finally become comfortable with PersonalBrain.

The top level of my PersonalBrain commonplace book.

There are several reasons I like PersonalBrain for this purpose. First, it’s primary organizational scheme is the “thought,” which works exactly as I envision a CpB working — topic-organized (for the rest of this post I will use the term topic instead of thought because that’s more relevant for a CpB). But most topics are related to other topics in complex ways, and PersonalBrain is built to show these relations.

My commonplace book drilled down to a more specific topic.

Each topic in PersonalBrain becomes the nucleous for various related information. You can clip an image from your screen to include with the topic. You can add numerous attachments — files, URLs. In the screenshot below, I’ve drilled down to one of my favorite books, The Right Stuff:

I've drilled down to one of my favorite books, The Right Stuff, where you can see a wealth of related information.

A great deal of information is revealed about the book just from the details on the screen. You can see that it was written by Tom Wolfe, who also wrote Bonfire of the Vanities. You can see that it is about the Mercury space program. You can see that it has a related topic also called The Right Stuff — which turns out to be the movie based on the book. Along the tool bar panel in the lower third of the screen, I have written some notes about the book (left side of the screen); there’s a link to the wikipedia page about the book (center). I could tag this entry — which I have not — and that would show up in the black box on the right.

To me, this is ideally how a commonplace book should work. I do wish that PersonalBrain had a better note editor, but that’s not that big a deal. If I want to write more extensively in a better word processor, I can attach a Word file.

The other thing advantageous about using PersonalBrain is that I can keep my CpB synched between my work PC running Windows and my personal MacBook.

PersonalBrain as a management tool

The more I use PersonalBrain, the more I like it. That’s not usually the case with information management software and me. I’m usually dazzled by a new application until I get deeply into using it and then all its shortcomings burst forth causing me to cast it aside with disdain. Or something like that.

Don’t get me wrong, PersonalBrain has its shortcomings, but they are easy to work around and overlook. What makes me shrug my shoulders at these issues is just how much fun PersonalBrain is to use, and how adaptable it is. I wrote a fairly extensive review of PersonalBrain for Mac Appstorm, which you can find here. And I’ve written about it on this site here and here. I do not want to cover old ground, so I’m going to try to provide only new insights I’ve uncovered about PersonalBrain (hereafter known as PB) in this post.

I realized for me that it is best to create one Brain (“Brain” is what the developer calls a database) for keeping all my work-related information. It took me a few months to come to this conclusion. I had four or five different Brains for different aspects of my job. That led to frustration on my part and I gradually merged them into my main work Brain. That was the first step to achieving PB bliss.

The next “ah-ha” moment came after I decided to use PB as my work diary. At first blush, this was not an obvious choice as PB doesn’t appear to lend itself to this use — afterall, you have to create a new thought (that’s the PB nomenclature for an item) for each day of the year, or at least each work day. That’s a lot of thoughts populating your Brain. But after finding myself entirely unsatisfied with other day-book options, I thought I’d give it a shot.

The easiest way I know of to populate a Brain with a structured set of thoughts for a year is to use the great diary generator available on the Brainstorm website. With that small application, I could easily create a single text file with a listing for each day of the year on separate lines, indented by month. So the first part of the file looks like this:

Text file for diary

First part of the text file for the year 2011

Using the diary generator, you may want to play around with the settings to get the output date format to look like you want. Then it is a simple matter of copying the file and then pasting it as an outline onto the Brain. I pasted my outline under a thought called “Day Books.”  With “2011” as the active thought, my Day Book looks like this:


My 2011 Day Book in PersonalBrain

You’ll notice that I edited the titles of the thoughts for each month. I chose this approach for a couple of reasons. First, I like being able to read the name of the month instead of having to interpret the number, but the number in front is important, because it helps keep the months in the correct order. I left the year as part of the names so that when I make a Day Book for 2012, I can distinguish between February 2011 and February 2012.

So now I navigate to the thought for the day, where I can use the notes tool to keep notes on the day’s activities. Because I have all my other work information in this Brain, I can make projects I work on child thoughts for the day. It’s important not to get carried away with this. If you work on a project every day for a month, you’ll end up giving that project two-dozen parent thoughts, and that is pretty much useless information. I’ll use this linking ability to connect day thoughts to projects for three purposes: 1. to mark the day I begin working on the project; 2. to mark the day I complete work on it; and 3. to remind myself to work on it on a certain day. When I use the linking for this last purpose, I will unlink the project thought at the end of the day. (If I want to keep a log of which projects I worked on each day, I can add that to the notes information and create a wiki-style link to the project thought.)

I always pin the current day, which puts it along the row at the top of the Plex (which is the main Brain pane). In the screenshot above, you will see the pin for the 24th of February (24/02/2011) in the top right side. Each day I navigate to yesterday’s thought, move any links to the current day, un-pin yesterday’s thought and pin today’s thought. Pinning the day thought gives me instant access to it from anywhere in the Brain.

In the screenshot below, today’s thought is the active thought. “2. February 2011” is the parent thought. All the other days in February are sibling thoughts (those thoughts that share at least one parent with the active thought). I have one item as a child thought — IBPA, the Independent Book Publishers Association. That’s a web site link that I came across at the end of yesterday and wanted to be sure I explored more, so I just dragged the URL into PB beneath today’s thought.

PersonalBrain Day Book "opened" to today.

PersonalBrain Day Book "opened" to today.

Now I can go to work on the IBPA thought, assigning it as a child thought of an agency I want to keep in touch with and to a project, as you can see here:

PersonalBrain screenshot

The PersonalBrain Plex, now with the tool panes open.

(A quick note about these screenshots: I have intentially enlarged the type on the screen to make them legible in these screen captures. Normally, I keep the text smaller, so more information is available. Also, note that in the screenshot directly above, I’ve opened the tool panes — which you can toggle on and off simply by double-clicking the Plex.)

At the end of the day I will unlink this thought from today’s thought. I don’t like a thought to have too many parents — too many for me seems to be three or four. But I may re-link it to tomorrow’s thought or the thought for a day I plan next to work on it. I also delete the thoughts for any days that do not have anything notable associated with them. This way I can help to keep this Brain pruned.

There are things I can’t accomplish using PB, and for these information management activities I use other applications. For structured data, I use Zoot and FileMaker. For making lists and tables, I use OneNote. Because OneNote allows me to copy a URL to any of its pages, or even paragraphs on those pages, I can paste these as external links (different from the links in the Plex) onto any thought in PB, which helps me manage that information too.

I think you can see from this little example that working with PB is a continuous process. You won’t get a lot out of it just by dumping information into it — if that’s the type of function you need, you’ll be better off with another option, Zoot or MyInfo (on PCs), or DevonThink (Mac). But this constant massaging of the information is precisely what I’ve found so appealing about PB. It keeps me engaged in ways that so many other applications do not.

Tinderbox redux

It’s been a while since I’ve written about Tinderbox, and I’m not really going to now, except to point out an interesting discussion about Tinderbox going on at the Literature & Latte site (home of the terrific Scrivener). It’s a long thread, one that started over four years ago. If you want to see the most recent comments, skip to page 3.

I’ve not been using Tinderbox as much as I would like, because I’ve made a commitment to PersonalBrain. This is not because I prefer PersonalBrain, but because I spend my work days on a Windows PC, and PersonalBrain is cross-platform. With webBrain — the brain-hosting service from The Brain Technologies — I can keep my MacBook and my work PC synchronized. I like PersonalBrain a great deal. There are aspects of it that are unmatched by any other application. But I think Tinderbox is more powerful, and would prefer to use it — and will when, and if, the promised Windows version is ever released. In the meantime, as I wrote here, PersonalBrain and Tinderbox can be complementary applications. I still dive into Tinderbox when I need to treat my information like a chess opponent.

Tinderbox vs. PersonalBrain. Grudge match or play nice?

Tinderbox and PersonalBrain. Two relatively costly applications that do similar things. Why on earth would anyone need both?

Forget for a moment that I’m basically crazy and have an illness we call Compulsive Reactive Information Manager Purchasing (or CRIMP for short) at outlinersoftware web site. These two applications are actually more complementary than they might first appear. Really.

Tinderbox is a much more complex tool — at least from my point of view as a user. In fact, it is too complex for me to make it my go-to, hold-everything application. I find it too difficult to extract data, and even putting information in can be cumbersome in certain instances.*

*In a seeming concession to this point, Eastgate has released the beta version of a new “little brother” application to Tinderbox called Twig. It appears to be a simpler, easier to use version of Tinderbox, although I haven’t played around with it enough to determine if it succeeds in this aspiration.

PersonalBrain, on the other hand, is pretty easy to use. Most functions feel streamlined, especially creating relationships among my notes. It feels much more integrated with the web and other applications.

For example, you can open and launch a new file in any of a number of other pieces of software from within PersonalBrain. That file can be stored within PB or elsewhere on you computer.

In PersonalBrain it is easier to get an overview of your information by expanding the Plex view.

CommonPlace Book expanded in PersonalBrain

My CommonPlace Book database expanded.

Tinderbox excels at analysis. It’s a place for me to plan and think. The map view is especially powerful for this purpose. It also has a the ability to add key attributes (i.e. database fields), so it would be much more useful for structured information than PersonalBrain.

Neither Tinderbox nor PersonalBrain excels for composing information within their limited editors, although both are serviceable, with Tinderbox having a slight edge.

Tinderbox is the more complete application. That is, it can serve as an information manager, a structured database, a mindmapper, an outliner, a flow charter, a blog manager, a project manager, and probably many more that I haven’t thought of.

The Plex in PersonalBrain is, however, more pliable than any of the views in Tinderbox. That is, you can scale it to see whatever level of complexity you need. You can even view your data in a quasi outline. The Map View in Tinderbox restricts you to one level of detail at a time. To see more of you information you need to switch to Chart or Outline views. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it may not be as smooth a work flow.

Three views in Tinderbox

CommonPlace Book database in three windows in Tinderbox, showing Outline, Map and Chart views

It’s funny, as I write about both these applications, I find myself getting revved up over each of them for their own strengths.

So, to get back to the original question, why would anyone need both Tinderbox and PersonalBrain? No one does. Not really. You could make due very well with either of these applications, or, in fact, with any of the dozens of other options available.


For me, at least, Tinderbox and PersonalBrain are compatible and serve entirely different functions. I’m happy to support both developers. If I had to choose just one, I would probably take PersonalBrain because it is cross platform. If the long-promised Windows version is ever released, however, Tinderbox would be the application I’d select because of its incredible versatility.

Fortunately, I don’t have to choose one or the other, and both applications can grace my MacBook.

PersonalBrain: A unique software tool

In one of my recent Tinderbox posts, I mentioned that I was now also using PersonalBrain as an information manager, and that I hoped to compare the two applications in an upcoming post. Before I get to that comparison it will be helpful if I talk about PersonalBrain and why I started using it.

Most of my non-commercial (i.e. personal) computing is done on my MacBook, but for my official work — the thing that pays the bills — I use a PC. For reasons I don’t need to get into here, I have found myself recently trying to find a new information management solution for the PC. I’ve long been fascinated by PersonalBrain, so I finally decided to buy a license and jump in.

PersonalBrain is not cheap, but I felt confident in my purchase for several reasons:

  1. The company has been around a while and seems stable. New editions come out frequently.
  2. The company goes to great lengths to help users understand how to get the most from PersonalBrain. Their web site may be the most helpful of any I’ve seen, especially for a relatively small developer.
  3. As a Java-based application, PersonalBrain is cross platform, and I can use it on my PC at work as well as on my MacBook.

The big question is just how useful will it be for managing my information? I’m still discovering the answer to that, but so far the results are promising.

I imagine that most people have the same initial reaction to PersonalBrain that I had (eight or nine years ago). “Wow! This is really cool.” But then I found myself a bit underwhelmed by the functionality beneath the Plex — that’s the area in the PersonalBrain window that’s the cool part. However, as PersonalBrain has evolved and I have learned more about it, I discovered it has many thoughtful features. It is more than just a pretty face.

I like hierarchical free-form databases like MyInfo and UltraRecall, what are commonly called outliners, as well as real outliners, such as OmniOutliner. What limits these applications as information managers, at least for me, is that I quickly get lost in the hierarchy. Topics and sub-topics and sub-sub-topics and sub-sub-sub-topics can quickly become overwhelming. The better outliners combat this by offering cloning, hoisting and cross-database searches — basically, ways in which you can pare down your information into bite-sized pieces.

PersonalBrain is one of the few applications that can effectively handle all (or most) of my information in a single database. When I click on a topic (or “Thought” as it is called in PB), that topic moves to the center of the Plex. This is effectively a hoist to that topic, but with this significant difference: The context of that topic is maintained.

Here’s what I mean: Not only do you see the child (or sub-) topics of the focussed topic, you also see its parents and its siblings. In fact, you can also see topics you’ve designated as related. As an example, I have begun a CommonPlace Book database in PersonalBrain. This is the top level view with major categories:

CommonPlace Book - PersonalBrain 6.0.The Plex’s geography is carefully set up to provide meta information about any single topic. Directly below the topic, of course, are its sub-topics. Above the topic is its parent topic (or topics, because any item can have multiple parents). To the right are its sibling topics. And directly to the left are related topics.

For example, I’ve now drilled down to the topic of Desert Solitaire.

My CommonPlace Book

You can see a quote from the book as the sub-topic, and you can see that it was written by Edward Abbey, that Abbey also wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang and Lonely Are the Brave, and that the book relates to Arches National Park. That’s a lot more information about the topic than you generally can get from an outliner.

CommonPlace Book in OmniOutliner

CommonPlace Book Hoisted to the Desert Solitaire Topic

OmniOutliner is a very sophisticated outlining application, but it does not match PersonalBrain for providing context for your notes.

And with PersonalBrain, it is so easy to continue making links. For example, I decided I wanted to make Desert Solitaire the first title in my list of Favorite Books. Easy. And now I can see that Desert Solitaire has two parent topics.

I’ve just scratched the surface of the many thoughtful features built into PersonalBrain. Of course, it is not perfect. I’m not crazy about the note editor, for instance. And, I hate the fact that they call databases “Brains.” I refuse to say I’m dragging a document into my brain.

If I’ve piqued your interest, you’ll find tons of information at the PersonalBrain web site, and I will probably add further posts about PersonalBrain.