Putting Your Brain on "TheBrain"

If you’re like me, there is too much in life to keep up with, too many things to remember, too many things I’d like to do. I offload tons of information into Evernote (a future topic). Many people use other software tools to create their own personal knowledge base for holding what they know and what they have learned. When you use a personal knowledge base you explore it, using a graphical user interface, to find pieces of knowledge and see what other knowledge is related, and you curate it, meaning, you add new knowledge, remove outdated knowledge, and make connections between related knowledge.

One available tool for creating, exploring, and curating a personal knowledge base is “TheBrain.” The reigning king of TheBrain users is Jerry Michalski. His knowledge base contains hundreds of thousands of bits of knowledge gleaned over a period of 21 years. (See Jerry’s Brain on the web for a look at his knowledge base as well as useful video tutorials.)

Few people will want or need to build a knowledge map as large as Jerry’s. But getting started is easy. Constructing a knowledge map is as simple as adding little bits of information (nodes) and linking them into a network of relationships. Each node in TheBrain is referred to as a “thought.” Thoughts can have “parent” thoughts, “child” thoughts, and “jump” thoughts (related thoughts not fitting a parent or child classification). The resulting network looks hierarchical but does allow connections to loop back around. The user interface shows the current thought in the middle of the screen, its linked parent thoughts above, its linked child thoughts below, and the jump thoughts to each side.

I first used TheBrain many years ago when I transferred into a new job in my company and found I had much to learn and organize. This included everything from new acronyms to new faces to new concepts. I retired from that company and quit using TheBrain, but I recently came back to TheBrain (version 10) and decided to test its usefulness for my personal needs. Below are some of my observations.

Dynamic vs static knowledge. TheBrain is best for knowledge that doesn’t change. Maintaining a knowledge base is more difficult if the knowledge is dynamic instead of static. For example, keeping track of which employee is in which part of a changing organization would constitute managing dynamic knowledge. It is not easy to rearrange knowledge in TheBrain or to make extensive edits to reflect new understanding.

Visualization. While TheBrain provides a visual interface to the knowledge you put into it, you really have very little control over how things are visualized. At any given time, you can only see a very small part of your network of knowledge. You can not, for example, see the parents of the parent thoughts, or see that a series of connections link several thoughts in a cycle.

There are other tools for visualizing knowledge, including CMapTools and Freeplane, and diagramming tools such as yEd from yWorks and Visio from Microsoft, that give the user significant control over the visualization. A flowchart, a common representation of knowledge where the shape of the icons are related to what’s in the icon, can’t be depicted with a tool like TheBrain. With many of the other tools, as a user you can set up a process for using the shape of a node, the color of a node, or the type of line connecting two nodes as a means of encoding information. Other common representations, like organization charts, are more easily built with tools other than TheBrain. It all depends on what you, as the user, are trying to accomplish.

Types and tags. Just as with many photo organization tools you can tag your photos (family, vacation, Christmas 2018), you can tag nodes in TheBrain. You can also assign a “type” to a node (e.g., book, person, organization, country). You can look at a list of nodes that have a given tag or type. A small tag (like a price tag) on a node indicates it has been tagged, and you can see what that tag signifies by hovering the mouse over the tag symbol.

Types of relationships among the thoughts (nodes). While links between nodes in TheBrain can be given a type, TheBrain is not really suited for depicting things like cause-effect relationships in a knowledge map.

Selecting a tool for a personal knowledge base depends on many things, including what you plan to put into the knowledge base and how you expect to use it. I hope to gather more information on these tools and share that information on this website in the future.