Review: TheBrain 10

Review: TheBrain 10

TheBrain 10

TheBrain 10 rethinks its object architecture.

https://www.thebrain.com

Pricing and feature comparisons can be found here.

See the Serious Insights TheBrain 11 update here.

The new version of TheBrain, version 10, refines the reimplemented native code across platforms and delivers several enhanced user experiences.

A plex used by Serious Insights to track our review backlog.

Understanding TheBrain

At its core though, TheBrain continues to offer the most unified organizing platform on the market. Unfortunately, not everybody is ready for TheBrain. A colleague recently opined that “eventually, people just want a list.” But TheBrain is precisely not a list. Rather, TheBrain acts as home to multidimensional knowledge maps and supporting data that represents the real way people connect information.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know this is how their brain works, so they end up trying to force information into forms that don’t support its richness, like lists. The problem with lists, and with other tools in the “mind mapping” category go about information, is their two-dimensional structure. Even the connections between ideas in a mind map lie along a two-dimensional plane.

Two-dimensional views facilitate two outcomes: the mind map can be navigated as a whole on-screen and on paper, and it can be reformatted into an outline, albeit one that has an issue with any references as they fall outside typical outline formats. Outlines and lists lose information.

From the very onset of learning for most people, educators teach learners to think with a linear bias. Most can remember early lessons on outlining a paper or a story, and that idea is reinforced by outlining tools in products like Microsoft Word, and in the file structures of Windows, macOS, Linux, and any other operating system. Some operating systems, like macOS, offer tags or other workarounds to augment the linearity of the structure, but they are weak bandages at most. The macOS only allows for a handful of colorful tags before it deteriorates into useless duplication and muddling of meaning.

Unlike lists and mind maps, TheBrain organizes with links and jumps that make navigating knowledge and data fluid.

Unlike lists and mind maps, TheBrain organizes with links and jumps that make navigating knowledge and data fluid. It facilitates the conversion of data into information (see our exploration of the differences between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom here). Something like TheBrain should be the foundation of future OS file management systems.

The philosophy of N-dimensional information structures, as well as typing and inheritance, revolutionize the way people use information technology. While outlines may help guide linear storytelling, outlines do not help manage large corpora of inter-related information. TheBrain’s links support horizontal (jumps) and parent-child relationships. The latest version also brings full object-oriented inheritance, with tags and types.

TheBrain offers an adaptive structure that works on fundamental elements connected by various relationships. It can model almost any conceptual space better than any piece of software, outside of the one running in a person’s actual brain. TheBrain does not run on artificial intelligence. It is not a black box full of algorithms attempting to make sense of a concept. TheBrain is a visual tool for crafting representations of conceptual spaces and helping those with access to the models, navigate, explore, and learn.

TheBrain does not run on artificial intelligence. It is not a black box full of algorithms attempting to make sense of a concept. TheBrain is a visual tool for crafting representations of conceptual spaces and helping those with access to the models, navigate, explore and learn.

Version 10 Improvements

In previous versions of TheBrain, types and tags were not first-class objects, and therefore some wrangling was required to reconcile between the knowledge structure and the classification scheme. I might have a thought (the name for TheBrain’s fundamental unit) for Lessons Learned, under which several items typed as “lessons learned” would be placed. If I explored the type, I could see these items, but I could not link directly to the type within the structure. Thus the artificial container, as I called it, for lessons learned (I would create a “container” type). Any new thought linked to a type inherits its properties (like icons and color).

With version 10, the lessons learned type can be linked directly to the parent with no need for a container. New visuals clearly identify types and tags (which are also first-order objects with inheritance). This approach declutters not only the plex (a TheBrain term for one of their maps), but it also declutters the information space, bringing more elegance to construction and more clarity to those using a plex. As first-class objects, the types and tags become clickable, which allows for focusing events. Click “lessons learned” for instance, and see all items classified as lessons learned, even if they are attached to other thoughts in a way unrelated to the idea hierarchy. Types can also be tagged. For those migrating a plex from an older version of TheBrain, the app supports easy conversion of thoughts into types with a menu pick.

New types handling in TheBrain 10 bring more elegance to plexes by reducing the number of objects.

Easy tag management, including tag replacement, enables workflows to be managed in TheBrain.

Also included in TheBrain 10 is a feature called a BrainBox, which is similar to the OneNote and Evernote clipping feature. Plug-ins for several browsers exist, and on the Mac, dragging files to the docked TheBrain icon also places an item in BrainBox. From there, the items can be linked to, or become thoughts. The feature is also available on iOS and Android.

If an information organization architecture is to become universal, it needs to support multiple data types. In addition to formatted text notes on thoughts, and thought attachments, TheBrain 10 improves timelines and events, which visually display, along the bottom of the main window.

Other feature updates to TheBrain 10 include enhanced presentation mode, global search and replace, improved notes, dark mode, the inclusion of external attachments in search, support for acronym conversion in search as well as several user interface refinements.

Rethinking TheBrain

TheBrain is a solid business and personal companion. I use it for tracking work, managing events and organizing research. Like some companions, I do occasionally lose my way back, getting stuck in lesser tools often because clients don’t know what to do with TheBrain.

Time constraints hurt TheBrain. While those who know it can be magnificently productive, those coming to it by invitation, for the first time, may find it overwhelming. First impressions elongate into lasting impressions. Those who don’t perceive they have their own time to explore or think those who work with or for them should not spend time exploring, then TheBrain simply doesn’t fit the mindset. The fault is not with TheBrain but with poor managers and faulty processes that opt for near-term efficiency or long-term value, for checkmarks rather than innovations.

Those who don’t perceive they have their own time to explore or think those who work with or for them should not spend time exploring, then TheBrain simply doesn’t fit the mindset. The fault is not with TheBrain but with poor managers and faulty processes that opt for near-term efficiency or long-term value, for checkmarks rather than innovations.

TheBrain, however, has over the last several years invested in becoming a more mainstream tool. Developers abandoning the tool’s Java roots started integrating better with browsers as well as Windows and MacOS. In general, TheBrain now offers more elegant and refined user experiences. But it still requires a leap into the plex—it requires an appreciation for complexity and a recognition for reductionism’s threats. Unlike anything else on the market, TheBrain has the potential to model almost any conceptual space and deliver it to people in an easy to navigate fashion. Tools like SharePoint may well absorb exactly the same information, but they struggle to make it accessible beyond search—and search is a linear representation. Of course, web platforms offer hyperlinks that can bind seemingly disparate items, but the approach to construction often deters implementation. TheBrain’s visual interface not only makes creating content easy but brings pleasure to its retrieval.

Everything known about Shakespeare all in one place, including supporting documents.

TheBrain: What’s Next?

Creating a more full-featured mobile experience should be next up, especially on platforms like the iPad that scream out for a product like TheBrain as a way to unleash the power of touch constrained by the information silos implemented by Apple and Google through their app architectures. TheBrain could offer a way to turn tablets into the kinds of devices from science fiction that inspired the hardware aspects of those devices.

I would also like to see TheBrain find its way to linked services, so not only can you reference something like a Trello card in the product, but bring in the card as an object with management features that reflect back on the Trello board. Most products now offer a bevy of integrations and the lack of those integrations may be a secondary deterrent to wider adoption.

Final Thoughts

Download TheBrain 10. Spend some time with the company’s tutorials. Build a plex for something you care about and see how easily everything, from wide-ranging associations to simple checklists all fit within the product’s visual structure. Once mastered, TheBrain often becomes the go-to tool. That it can’t print its captured wisdom may provoke some, but in reality, and I don’t just mean that as an idiom, in reality, information is complex and only the most simple forms of it work well printed on consecutive sheets of paper. TheBrain is the only tool that offers a complete and utter departure from the assumptions that underlie our relationship with computing technology and with written and oral forms of communication. Good plexes in TheBrain not only help people manage information, but they also help people learn and discover. TheBrain is a technology that empowers and encourages its users to be better thinkers. Few products can make that claim.


Disclosure: Daniel W. Rasmus has on-and-off been a paying customer of TheBrain. Currently, TheBrain provided a single user professional license to facilitate this review. Serious Insights has also previously been retained by TheBrain as an analyst firm.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

4 comments

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    Mark Trexler

    I’ve used TB for more than a decade, and have built what I think is the largest topical Brain out there at http://www.theclimateweb.org. The biggest weakness of TB is its almost exclusive focus on TB as a desktop software. Yes, there are mobile apps as well, but you’re not going to build anything complex on the mobile app. But what about the millions of people that might want to access a Brain over the web? There is a web interface, but it is sadly deficient. You can’t even hit the Back-Space key more than once due to a long-standing bug. It’s sad because it means that many first-time users are getting a negative rather than a positive first impression.

    comments user

    Sebastian Muller

    I got TheBrain 10 and it just works. It helps me to manage, have ideas, relate, and be able to keep up with all the information I need from a 2500 organization size of employees.

    comments user

    Phil Murray

    Very good review Daniel. I’ve been using TheBrain for 6 years or so now, and I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. I landed with TheBrain (and stayed with it) after trying dozens of other products for the PC over 20 or so years. And I keep trying new products. TB still doesn’t do exactly what I want to do: Represent practical knowledge in ways that make the meaning of that knowledge very explicit while being easy to navigate — not just for myself but for others. Biggest missing features: Ease of import of complex structured data and, within TB, definable metadata. But they do have a lot of what I need, and they listen to their users.

    Thanks, Phil Murray

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