Working in the Brain I

By | July 21, 2007

I know I’ve written a lot about PersonalBrain of late, and I apologize for that if it doesn’t interest you. But partly in response to comments on an earlier post, and partly just because I think it might help, I wanted to give an example of how I use the program, in the hope it might inspire some of you to try it out, or at least to keep going if you’re trying and struggling to adapt the software to your daily life.

To me PersonalBrain is a place to dump what you know so that a) you’ll remember what it is you know and b) find a place for it amidst all the other stuff you know. You may not remember everything you know, but if you have it some place you can reach, you stand a better chance of recalling it when you need it. PersonalBrain helps you do this, and helps you link it to the other stuff you know, in ways that may surprise you.

This evening I watched a National Geographic special (yeah, another wild night chez moi) on the Lake Toba supervolcano eruption of 70,000 years ago, which may or may not have plunged the planet into a 1,000 year ice-age. I realized while watching it that I’d seen it before, but had pretty much forgotten all about it. A perfect example of how to use PersonalBrain, I figured. So this is how I did it:

First I looked for anything that was already in my brain that was volcano-related. This is what I found:


A thought on Tracking volcanoes — not directly relevant, but enough for me to start working backwards. This is one of the beauties of PersonalBrain — you can start anywhere, building hierarchies in reverse order, or sub-branches (what are called children) or jumps — links that aren’t necessarily direct, but ones you think may prove useful in the long run. So an obvious parent (the next level up the hierarchy) here would be Volcanoes (another could be Tracking stuff).

So I add that, as the  base for the child I want to add on the Toba eruption. But before adding the Toba link, I start to think what Volcanoes may itself be a child of. Disasters seems an obvious one, so I add that. PB, though, is a step ahead of me, since it turns out I already have a thought of that name:


So I try linking to that. It seems likely it’ll be relevant, and it is. Disasters already has as children things like Earthquakes and Tsunami. Earthquakes makes an obvious fit:


Of course, if I’d been more on the ball when I originally added the Disasters thought I could have added the Volcanoes thought at the same time. But that’s the beauty of PB: It doesn’t really matter. It’s not about thinking — a la brainstorming and mindmaps — as about adding stuff when it occurs to you. The skill is in ensuring the names of your thoughts are helpful to you, so the hierarchy and connections emerge naturally as you add material.

So now all I have to do is add the Toba thought and enough links and material so it means something to me later. This is easy enough: A Google search of Toba supervolcano throws up a feast of interesting links. I throw them quickly as attachments into a thought (they could as easily be separate thoughts; doesn’t really matter). I also copy the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article into the notes section:


And, just to be cute (and to make the thought stand out) I copy an image of the area as a thought icon:


Sounds fiddly? Actually all of this takes less than two minutes.

Finally, if you have time, it’s worth adding a few extra links to what you’ve created, which will really tap into the power of PersonalBrain. Lake Toba is in Indonesia so I should add it to an Indonesia-related thought. I decided to create one called Indonesian history which I then made a child of Indonesia. (Probably could be better, but we can fix it later. Because a child in PB can have multiple parents, it doesn’t really matter.)

I could add more parents or jumps (Possible weekend destinations? Human evolution? Bad things that may happen again? Ring of Fire?), but if they don’t jump to mind at the time, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is there is now something in my brain as a marker for this new cluster of information, this nugget, this little bit of knowledge, and it’s been connected to its natural cousins. Now I know I will find it again, and, as importantly, I will find it even if I’m not looking exactly for Toba and volcanoes.

Not everyone is going to want to rush to their computer every time they watch a documentary or read a book. But if you’re anything like me, frustrated that so much of what I see, read and hear gets lost and only half-remembered, and that my brain rarely makes the connections to other things I’m half remembering, PB is a powerful aid to retaining, inspiring and making those links. And, most importantly, it’s fast and simple.

13 thoughts on “Working in the Brain I

  1. Hsien Lei

    You’re making me feel like I should try it again although I don’t recall the screencasts to be that helpful. Your brief example here is much more illustrative. Maybe I’ll go back and fiddle around when I haven’t got Harry Potter to finish up. 😀

  2. Nitin Badjatia


    Thanks for the example. I certainly can see where TheBrain would provide a better way to structure ideas than a traditional database, or even meta-tagging, approach. The child-multiple parent is the real key here I think. I’ll have to give this another try.

    Other questions:

    How good is the search capability within a large brain? Can Google Desktop search into the files?

    Does it make sense to build one brain file or many? In a GTD sense, having one file source is always preferred, but it seems to me that people keep many files based on focus areas. What’s your suggestion?

  3. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Nitin, thanks for this. The search is actually quite powerful, and can index all attachments, including documents and web pages. I don’t use that feature too much, because most of the time I’m trawling via thought name, but I think it’s definitely a powerful addition.

    On one brain or more, I would try with one. Chances are that there will be links between subjects and worlds, and the great thing about PB is its scalability. The bigger it is, the bigger the chance of building connections that hadn’t occurred to you.

  4. Nitin Badjatia


    Thanks. Just one more question….umm, what in your mind, seperates TheBrain from, say, a wiki…besides the obvious visual aspect of viewing connections?

  5. Anonymous

    Nitin, I think it’s the speed of being able to add and navigate material that is the biggest plus, as well as the fact that there is no limit on the number of links.

  6. Tim

    I have now tried PB twice on your suggestion, each time fizzling out. Love the concept, just couldn’t make it go…beginning to think my personal brain was deficient (which is still a distinct possibility).

    My last attempt included an investment of time in the live webinar, during which I asked a few clarifying questions. Still, it didn’t stick.

    This last post, though, really helps – at least it makes me want to try again.

    Your commentary on what you were thinking as you made each entry is the part that resonated this time around. I know the concepts were covered in the webinar, but I don’t think the ‘thought channels’ were articulated as clearly as they were in your post. That, along with the screenshots, presented the experience in a more beneficial way for me.

    I really struggle with ‘overthinking’ how to classify such information. “I could organize it this way…but I could also look at it this way.” Uggghhh – mental gear grinding. Even the decision to have one brain or several sub-brains turned out to be too much overthinking for my pea brain.

    At last I understand (or think I understand) that the potential beauty of this product is the ability to free myself from that recursive mental nightmare.

    I really hope this isn’t the third strike, but here goes…

    (hope they give me another trial period)

  7. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Tim, glad this was of some help. I know exactly what you mean about overthinking and you’re right: It’s best not to with PB. After the thoughts build up, it’s easy enough to tidy up the plex by adding or removing links, placing a ‘sub-category’ thought between a thought that has too many children, etc etc. But I’d say the best thing is not to bother with trying to be too thorough about it at the start.

    If you need help convincing the folk at TheBrain to extend your trial period let me know …

  8. jeffreygene

    Jeremy –

    You’ve written about this personal brain thing so many times on your blog I thought I’d finally check it out. About ten minutes in, I was ready to chuck it…then I slowed down, viewed the web demos, checked out a few things on the faqs…what kept me going was like you wrote about, resisting the urge to try to make it a neat and tidy mind map.

    With luck I will be able to use this program to re-remember things, your last post certainly has portrayed it as a powerful program.

    Thanks from HK.

  9. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Jeffrey, glad you’re persevering with it; I definitely wouldn’t be writing about it so much of late if I didn’t think it was worth it. Please feel free to share any tips or insights you come across; I have yet to fully exploit lots of features of the program.

  10. jeffreygene

    so about two days into personal brain, here’s one great use i’ve found – it’s such a more natural way to store my bookmarks. even with delicious you can’t really easily link bookmarks to related ones. tags are still displayed on a static page.

    but with pb, if i’m working on a project, i just remember to add useful sites as related thoughts. for example: just set up a photogallery on a website i run. there’s a main thought: photogallery. child thoughts related to that are the handful of skimmed sites that have plugins for wordpress. some jump thoughts relate to other sites i’ve found. so if i want to take another look at something i saw earlier, i click on the photogallery site, and all the sites i’ve viewed come up as related.

    it feels so natural and easy that some of the sites i loaded into personal brain but not into my bookmarks.

    thanks jeremy!

    (although no thank you for the credit card charge that will come up once my trial period is over…)

  11. Ming Yeow (Steve)

    thanks for the potentially great tip jeremy! i process tonnes of thoughts everyday, and subconsciously make sense of them when i wake up everyday. I think having such a visual tool will be great to enhance my ability to make connections between my experiences and my thoughts. Will try it out, and let u know how it goes


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