Extending Your Brainpower

This Software ‘Thinks’ Just Like You, But Makes Connections You Had Missed

WSJ Online June 22, 2007

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Here’s a heads-up on some organizing software that may take some getting used to. Frankly, it’s taken me nearly 10 years to appreciate its power. But now that I do, it has become something of an obsession. I even have dreams about it.

It’s a defiantly different kind of thought-mapping program called PersonalBrain, and a new version (including versions for Mac and Linux users) will be launched next month by U.S.-based TheBrain Technologies LP. Users include scientists, soldiers, inventors and others who have used it to marshal their collections of thoughts, projects and even databases on criminal syndicates. I find it so useful and absorbing, there’s nothing — be it a Web site link, a random idea, a contact, a document, a scrap of information — that I don’t add to its spider-web-like screen, knowing it will throw up links my brain had never considered or had failed to remember.

So what is it, and what does it do? Well, if you’ve ever created a so-called mind-map — a brainstorming technique that creates a burst of thoughts from one central idea or topic — you’ll notice the similarities. Ideas branch out from the center, organizing your thoughts in hierarchies. PersonalBrain, however, is less interested in building hierarchies, and more interested in mimicking the way the brain works. You nominate whatever is uppermost in your mind, and it rearranges things to illustrate the connections that thought has with other ideas in your head. Think less about branches, more about a freeform spiderweb.

PersonalBrain’s screen appearance hasn’t changed much since 1998, and it still looks contemporary. You’d be hard pressed to say that about any other software program. First impressions are positive. It looks good when you launch it, with its navy blue background and spinning central wheel and its spiderweb of links. Once you’ve got the hang of dragging little circles around a word, you get the idea of adding more threads to the web. Click on a word and it jumps to the center, the web of other words and links rearranging themselves around it.

It’s about now that new users tend to flounder a little. Certainly I did: I couldn’t immediately grasp the idea that PersonalBrain is less about getting a bird’s eye view of a subject — there are plenty of tools for that, like MindManager, or TopicScape 3D — than about helping you build and find connections between things you’re interested in. Italian consultant to the Italian police Roberto Capodieci (www.excomputer.net) uses it for tracking the connections among members of a criminal network, while British science historian James Burke uses it to track the links between history’s great inventors.

Now there’s nothing particularly magical in this. It’s not as if PersonalBrain is doing the linking for you. You have to build the links yourself. But remembering all the connections is something else. That’s where PersonalBrain comes in. Bali-based Mr. Capodieci, for example, adds a few basic terms (what the software calls thoughts) as categories — suspects, locations, criminal activities, phone records, etc. For each suspect, he adds a thought. Under locations, he adds places he is surveying — bars, restaurants, clubs — and then under criminal activities adds prostitution, drug dealing, robberies, etc. The next step is to start linking the suspects to the locations and to the activities. Pretty soon it is clear that two suspects in the same bar engaged in the same kind of activity are likely to know each other. Those frequenting more than one bar might be the links between two groups of suspects. Then he adds the suspects’ phone-call records, further linking them together and building a picture of the gangs he is dealing with.

Now your work or interests may not stretch to Soprano-like family trees. (Mr. Capodieci says he began using PersonalBrain when he found it installed on a hacker’s computer: the hacker was using it to store information about employees at a company to improve his efforts at engineering a scam.) But whatever your interest, however smart you are and however good a memory you have, you’re unlikely to be able to make and remember all these kinds of connections — especially over years. One longtime user, U.S.-based technology consultant Jerry Michalksi, has more than 60,000 so-called thoughts in his PersonalBrain, covering everything he has collected in 10 years.

While the new version dovetails better with Microsoft Outlook and has several important new features, it doesn’t feel quite as attractive as its predecessor. Nonetheless, after a few unsuccessful attempts I finally got going with it a few months ago, and now I can’t leave it alone. Pretty much every idea I have (admittedly not many), every Web site I like, every contact I’ve made ends up in my PersonalBrain, linked together by topic (such as “Web sites promoting good shaving practice”), or place, or friends in common, or temporary categories (such as “What I need to work on next”). While other tools would balk at trying to relate one item to more than a handful of others, PersonalBrain positively cries out for it.

Even after three months I’m only scratching the surface with about 4,000 thoughts. I’m also discovering connections that wouldn’t have occurred to me — and finding, lurking there in my PersonalBrain things I’d already forgotten I knew. As its creator, Harlan Hugh, said recently: “It’s like anything that’s truly new; you’re not going to be an instant expert, but we think it’s easy enough to see the benefits.”

I can’t guarantee PersonalBrain will help you sleep better. But if you persevere, I feel sure it will grab you as much as it has grabbed me.

22. June 2007 by jeremy
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