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Notes from the Technology Trenches - If You Only Had TheBrain: Mapping Your Thoughts With TheBrain Technology

By Cindy Curling, Published on February 15, 2002

Cindy Curling is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.


A few months ago, I got a new laptop. It is the first entirely new computer I've had since 1996, and I was thrilled not to have to deal with switching out old components for new. The only difficult aspect of adjusting to the new computer was transferring all my old documents. After years of moving in a little memory here, a new hard drive there, a second drive, new motherboards, and successively installing, uninstalling and upgrading software, I had accumulated an impressive and messy array of files. Some I remembered from 1996, most I had no clue about any longer. The root of this problem? You might think it was pure lack of organization, but I'm willing to bet that I'm probably more organized electronically than three-quarters of the population. I actually make an effort to group things so that they make sense and go through the files once in a while to remove old useless materials. No, it's not disorganization I blame, it's file structures.

File Folder Hierarchies

The thing I used to like most about Netscape, before Microsoft compatibility issues began to take over my computing choices, was its bookmark system. It worked very intuitively. I created my bookmarks, grouped them by names that made sense and could easily move them around so that the things I used most were at the top. Explorer, on the other hand, works using an alphabetized structure imposed by the software. That took some time to adjust to, but eventually, I mostly got the hang of it.

As I was working on shifting my folders around and getting them in an order that made some sense on the laptop, I kept thinking, "Geesh, I have this same trouble with paper folders. You just don't see some of the material often enough to know if it's still useful. If only there was some better way to connect all these different documents so that you'd remember to look." Well, as a librarian, I immediately thought of good old "see also" cross-referencing. Frankly, though, when you are in a hurry, you just look at the file you need. You don't bother to follow up on related material unless it's right there in front of you. Electronically, at least, there should be a way to not only see what you know need, but to also see related materials.

And how about the way everything is separated out by document type in Microsoft? You don't have to store things that way, but it's what you are encouraged to do by the default folder names. If you don't want a Web page to get stored in My Webs, you have to make the effort to re-route it someplace else.

I was mulling all this over and thought how nice it would be if there was some software program out there that I could let loose on my computer to organize it more intuitively. It would make more sense to me if things were grouped by project, with the active items up front, and with related items in my peripheral view, so to speak, so that they would be handy enough not to ignore. If that were an automated process, I'd see at least some of the outdated information now and again and could be more vigilant about keeping things tidy. At least, so I like to think on my optimistic days. "Man, what a great idea," I thought to myself. "If I were a programmer and could figure that out, I'd probably make a mint.” That thought was quickly followed up with, "Nah, if I thought of that, some real programmer has probably already been working on it.”

TheBrain Technologies

Sure enough, days after I had my new laptop up and running, a reader sent me a note about a product he called WebBrain. I also heard references to TheBrain and PersonalBrain at a conference I went to in early January, also covered in an article at LLRX. No one shared much information, except that it was a way to organize information where you could group different kinds of documents together more intuitively, so I went to have a look for myself.

TheBrain Technologies Corporation markets three different products that help users do what I was thinking about. Sadly, a mystery artificial intelligence doesn't go though all your files for you to sort things into a more intuitive format, but their software does make it much easier for you to do that yourself. Essentially, there are three products: PersonalBrain for individuals, BrainEKP for enterprise level communication, and WebBrain for Internet searching.

PersonalBrain

I bet you are already thinking of a few people in your office that could use a personal brain, aren't you? Well, funny as the name might be, it is actually a useful product, and even those of us whose brains are functioning pretty well would probably find it handy.

PersonalBrain 2.0 was released on January 21, 2002, and TheBrain Technologies now offers it free for a 30-day trial. I gave it a shot and have liked what I've seen. I've heard the PersonalBrain referred to as a sort of visual organizer or mind map. The idea behind it and the other products from TheBrain Technologies is to create a visual organizational system based on how we use our brains to process information and associate one thought to another. Instead of imposing an outside hierarchy, it lets you determine connections between information elements called thoughts. It uses a constantly changing visual representation of connected ideas called the Plex as its interface, which shows you active thoughts and any related, inactive thoughts. No one thought is more important than another, but the active thought is the one that takes precedence. Active thoughts lead to other thoughts that in their turn may also become active.

Confused yet? You probably will be if you've become used to file folders. I recommend a visit to the video tutorials or the extensive User Guide for clarification. The system is highly dynamic, so screen shots don't really do it justice, but you can see it in action in the tutorials mentioned above and in the header sections on TheBrain's Web site.

The hardest concept for me to take in was that the system was not intended to be hierarchical. I kept thinking, "How do you get back to the beginning?" Well, there really isn't a beginning or end, but there are relationships, which helps. When you create a brain, a group of connected thoughts, you generally start with a single concept, like yourself or a project for instance. You have to start somewhere, and if it helps to think of that as the "top,” go ahead.

That thought, the only thought in your new brain, is active by default. It appears in the center of the Plex, and has three small dots around it called gates that you use to establish relationships between the active thought and other thoughts. There are three kinds of gates: parents, children and jumps. Say you were working on a project and your first thought was the project name, Fall Associates 2002. From that first thought, you might create children that would appear below the active thought. Possible children might include orientation and legal research training. They are siblings, related to each other in some way and all relating back to the parent, Fall Associates 2002. A jump gate is used to create a link to a thought that has a relationship with the active thought, but which is somehow exclusive. In this case it might be something like contact information. As a jump thought, it appears off to the left of the active thought.

Now, here's where it gets both tricky and more useful. Fall Associates 2002 was your first thought, but you can create a parent for it, maybe Fall Associates. Even so, that first thought will always have a "home thought icon" that allows you to easily return to the main thought. Parent thoughts appear above the active thought, and children below, so you can trace up and down along those connections and use it as a hierarchy in that fashion, but jumps connect sideways and may also have parents and children, any of which you may connect with any other thought, so it is innately more complex than any ladder or tree-based hierarchy. It reminds me of the visual representations of networks you see in science fiction movies when someone wearing a futuristic Virtual Reality rig travels "The Net" or Cyberspace, following paths of activity from node to node, branching off where necessary within a vast complex of connections. PersonalBrain is that connectivity on a more personal scale.

If the brain you create is very complex and you don't want to move from connection to connection to find your thought, there is also a search mechanism. Over the course of my trial of the PersonalBrain, I found that searching worked fine for the amount of information I had stored, even though the search function didn't seem very complex. There is also a path that runs across the bottom of the brain's window that lets you scroll backwards and forwards through your "thoughts" from the current session.

Your Brain is What You Make It

It is very, very easy to make connections to new thoughts within a brain. PersonalBrain stays active on your desktop and can be displayed or hidden away until you need it. You can create new thoughts by keying them in, clicking on the appropriate gate to choose the type of connection you'd like to make first. Alternately, you can use a drop down menu to attach new thoughts or connect to existing thought, or you can drag and drop things into the Plex. Almost any kind of information, so long as it is in an electronic format, can be a thought. Many thoughts may be simply labels or concepts for you to attach other information to. That information may be an Excel spreadsheet, a video, a Web site, a folder, a database, an e-mail, a text document, an audio file, whatever. You can also add notes to existing thoughts.

Removing and changing thoughts is also very easy to do. The PersonalBrain, like your own brain, is an interactive system, and isn't intended to be static. Of course, like most things in life, the benefits depend on the effort you invest, and it is up to you to make the connections. The more you use it, the more it will become second nature and the more helpful it will be.

The PersonalBrain is easy to download and install and doesn't affect your operating system at all. It's compatible with recent versions of the Microsoft operating system and works with most Windows applications, but unfortunately doesn't seem to have versions yet for Apple or Linux. If you are installing the software on a network, be sure to check first with your Information Systems folks as you would before installing any executable file. PersonalBrain even comes with a "Getting Started Wizard" to make it very easy to build your first brain, plus offers a good bit of user support, even for the trial version. If you try the PersonalBrain, I'd be very interested to hear what you think. If you like what you see, the cost for using a fully functioning PersonalBrain is $79.95.

WebBrain

If you like the idea of a visual interface of connected thoughts as a way to organize information, WebBrain may help you with your Internet searching. It applies the same kinds of relationships used in PersonalBrain to the Web. In fact, if you don't want to download PersonalBrain, but would like a taste of using the visual interface, use WebBrain and you'll get a good idea of what a "mature" brain might look like and how to navigate within it. Children are ranged across the bottom in alphabetical order, and once you click on a category you'll see jumps to the left with the siblings of the active thought off to the right and the parent above. This visualization is, of course, different from what you might build. First, it definitely has a top, though you might lose sight of it after you've navigated around for a while. Second, someone else created it and decided on the connections, so don't expect it to be as intuitive as it would be if you'd done it yourself. Last, you won't see any of the functionality for adding, removing or modifying information in a PersonalBrain. Still, WebBrain will give you a working grasp of the basics, and has the search feature I mentioned earlier.

Of all the products from TheBrain Technologies, WebBrain seems the least useful to me other than as a working model. Whoever created the connections does not think the way that I do. But, that's the beauty of creating your own PersonalBrain; it really will work the way that you think.

BrainEKP

BrainEKP, Enterprise Knowledge Platform, is to groups what PersonalBrain is to individuals, and is intended for use in organizing and communicating about group projects. While it uses the same general idea of the visualization of connected thoughts as PersonalBrain, it also contains some special added functionality for group discussion and imposes some standardization to help keep everyone on the same page.

BrainEKP has four main components: Universal Data Access, Integrated Collaboration, the Knowledge Model, and the Visual User Interface:

  • Universal Data Access lets the group combine and use data from all kinds of sources, much the same way as with PersonalBrain, but adding a sort of bulletin board aspect so that as information changes, the group can comment on developments.
  •  Integrated Collaboration lets those comments be seen with the new materials, and lets any member of the group modify or add to the information as necessary.
  • The Knowledge Model is where standardization comes in. The group defines the relationships and processes pertinent to the project and uses those definitions to create a template of concepts for everyone to work with. In PersonalBrain, the template is the Plex, with its parent, child and jump relationships. With BrainEKP, the templates could become much more complex, especially where processes are taken into account.
  • The Visual User Interface is the same idea as that used in PersonalBrain. A dynamic visual representation of elated thoughts made up of information from a variety of sources lets the group see how things are connected and gives them immediate access to connected items.

TheBrain Technologies makes available a ton of information about BrainEKP at its Web site, and since I haven't tried it personally, I would recommend that you check there if you are interested in more information. I did contact the company to ask about the cost of BrainEKP, and was informed that implementations typically start in the six-figure range. The costs depend on a variety of considerations such as number of licenses, users, connections to outside information repositories, and training. Obviously, this is not an option that a small shop is likely to use, but it's a very interesting idea worth keeping an eye on. One other element I asked about was security, since a big benefit of the system is its ease of use across several platforms and accessibility from a variety of locations. Essentially, it's a Web based product, which, like an intranet, is housed within an organization, so the security level for the information depends on the organization. Access from outside an organization (for a home user, for instance) would be via a password-protected logon.

A Word on the Competition

If you like the idea and are interested in checking out the competition, you may want to visit the sites of Inspiration, MasterList Case Management Software and Visual Mind. The first two are much simpler options for creating "mind maps.” Inspiration is the least expensive at $56.50 for a single user, but is aimed at the academic market and is much less sophisticated in its ability to link across Windows applications, though it does allow you to incorporate Web links. Inspiration offers a thirty-day free trial, though it doesn't appear to offer an online demo. MasterList Case Management Software is tailored toward case litigation, and is a little more expensive at $259. Thanks to the nature of litigation, it is very much oriented toward agendas, deadlines and to-do lists, but for someone who spends all her time dealing with just that, its simpler, targeted interface may be preferable.  A demo disk can be ordered through the site, but no online demo is available.

Visual Mind is the product most like PersonalBrain, and it has some of the same sophisticated linking options (for local documents, e-mail and Web sites), as well as some nice additional features like starting an e-mail from a stored address. It is, however, a little more expensive at $99.00 for an individual user, and I much prefer the interface used by PersonalBrain. Take a look at the video demo or interactive examples for Visual Mind and see what you think. If you like it, you may want to consider it as a business wide option since the cost for their site license is only $495 for an unlimited number of users in the same building. The software is produced in Norway, though, so be prepared for potential lag times with support, and definitely take advantage of their free trial offer to test that aspect before you buy.