PersonalBrain: A GPS System for Your Information

A new year always brings the chance to start fresh with a new approach to staying organized, so we’re going to take a look today at PersonalBrain, a sophisticated knowledge management solution I’ve come to think of as a GPS system for my information.

PersonalBrain is unlike any other application I’ve come across for managing information. Superficially it looks somewhat like a mind mapper, and it has the ability to create networks of links among your notes like a personal wiki. But PersonalBrain is more than the sum of those parts. It always indicates what neighborhood of your information you are currently prowling.

Is it the right solution for you? Let’s take a look.

PersonalBrain plex

PersonalBrain shows you where you are in your information database.

First thing to know about PersonalBrain is that it is a Java application. This means two things: 1. It is cross-platform, so you can use it on Mac, PC or Linux operating systems; and 2. It is not particularly Mac-like. It is produced by TheBrain Technologies.

Its inventor, Harlan Hugh, began working on its development over 15 years ago, and the software has been evolving ever since. You can download a free 30-day trial, which is fully functional. Installation is fairly standard, but you’ll need to have Java installed on your system — Java is standard on OS X systems, so this should not be an issue.

There are three editions: Pro, Core and Free. This review covers the Pro edition.

As with a mind mapper, you create a map of your various topics in PersonalBrain. Dogs is a subset of Pets, while Golden Retriever and Border Collie are subsets of Dogs, and Fido is a subset of Golden Retriever. While a mind mapper can handle that hierarchy very well, drilling down from broad categories to more and more detail, PersonalBrain can do a lot more with this same information.

In PersonalBrain Fido can be be both a child of Golden Retriever AND the parent item to Pets. Moby the Goldfish can also be a parent to Pets. This cross-relational linking, multi-parent capability is what gives PB its wiki-like flair.

PersonalBrain pets example

Thoughts in PersonalBrain can have multiple parents.

There are two major differences between the links in a wiki and links in PersonalBrain. In PersonalBrain, the links are visual connectors, not hyperlinks. And, the links in PersonalBrain convey meaning. In a wiki there is no such thing as a parent or child note. In PersonalBrain, however, a note can be a child or parent; there are also jump links that connect related information, and are not hierarchical in nature.

The power, then, in PersonalBrain comes from being able to create these inter-connected links among your data. It allows you to quickly map out a project, adding necessary information as you go. Your information is never static in PersonalBrain. The networks you build are organic and constantly changing as you add information and redefine the links.

The Geography of a Brain

Before we continue, I should make some definitions so we are speaking the same PersonalBrain language. In PersonalBrain, a database is known as a “brain.” The items that make up a brain are called “thoughts” and these thoughts are displayed in the “plex.” The thought with focus is the “active thought.”

The plex, of course, is the feature of PersonalBrain that is most distinctive. It’s really a substitute, animated Finder for your information, and it has its own geography that denotes the relationship among that information. The screenshot below demonstrates this geography.

PersonalBrain plex geography

How thoughts line up in PersonalBrain defines their relationships.

In this example, the active thought is “Plex Geography.” Below the active thought are its child thoughts. Above the active thought is the parent thought (or parent thoughts, because thoughts can have multiple parents). To the right are sibling thoughts — that is, thoughts that share at least one parent with the active thought. And directly to the left are jump thoughts, items related to the active thought, but unconnected by hierarchy.

This is the GPS aspect I alluded to. You always know where you are among your thoughts, because you always see what neighborhood it belongs to. You can see immediately just from this one example how PersonalBrain differs from a mind mapper, which displays hierarchy in one direction. Let’s see this in a more powerful example:

PersonalBrain book detail

You can learn a lot about the active thought simply from the relationships displayed in the plex.

In the screenshot above, the active thought is the book The Big Burn. You can see that it was written by Timothy Egan, who also wrote The Worst Hard Time, and that it is a non-fiction work. The Big Burn is about the U.S. Forest Service, Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. It is related to Idaho, where much of the action takes place.

The plex is also flexible. The plex geography I’ve outlined above is for the plex in normal mode. But you can optionally choose to view your information in outline mode, or expanded and shifted around to your satisfaction. The next two screenshots demonstrate this:

PersonalBrain in outline mode

PersonalBrain can arrange thoughts in outline mode.

PersonalBrain in expanded mode

Or you can expand the view and shift thoughts around at will.

Tools and the Tool Window

So far I’ve focused on the plex area of the PersonalBrain interface. Now we’ll look at how you can access several tools through the six tabs displayed in the tools window. In most Mac applications, the tools window would be called the Inspector.

You can move the location of the tools window to suit your need. It can be displayed horizontally along the bottom of the screen, or in a more vertical format to the right or left. You can disengage tabs to view them side by side simultaneously. And a simple double-click on the plex can open and close the tools window should you need the full screen to adequately view your brain’s plex.

PersonalBrain tools window right

You can move the tools window to suit your needs.

Through the tools window you can control additional information related to the active thought, adding notes, assigning tags, giving it a thought type and more. You access and control the attached files and links. You can also view the results of advanced searches, and create reports. Finally, you can view PersonalBrain’s built in calendar.

The Notes Editor

It’s no secret what the notes tool is for. Type or paste formatted text for future reference. You can include lists, check boxes, and tables too — although I must confess that some of these features don’t always work as expected on my MacBook. There is even a spell-checker.

Nevertheless, I find the notes function one of the weaker aspects of PersonalBrain, as it is built on an HTML editor (which may account for the erratic behavior) that does not provide a fluid, word-processing feeling. For me it is not a comfortable environment for composing longer text documents. It is perfectly adequate for jotting notes, and pasting text from other sources, which is really all I need it to do.

PersonalBrain notes window

The notes window in PersonalBrain.

A nice feature is that you can optionally open the notes window even when the tool window is closed. In fact, you can open multiple floating notes if you need to reference the notes of several thoughts simultaneously.


There is a small search box located in the lower left side of the plex. As you type the word or phrase you are looking for, a list of hits appears allowing you to instantly activate the thought you’re looking for. If you don’t find what you’re looking for from this list, click the “search” button and a longer list appears beneath the search tab

The found items are broken down into categories starting with matches in thought titles, and continuing with thought content, local attachments (files that are attached to thoughts and stored internally), and then Spotlight search results for Mail, iCal and Address Book. The search below was for the string “movies.”

PersonalBrain search results

Search results are displayed in the Search tab.

You can also access controls for an advanced search from the search tab.


The calendar tool is probably not going to replace your daily calendar, but it is handy for adding dated events to your brain, especially as each event is associated with a thought. So, if you’re planning an advertising schedule, say, you can create various milestones connected to that project. I’ll provide an example a little further along in this review.

How to Build a Brain

Building your brain is fun and very easy. Just select New Brain from the File menu, give the brain a name, and that name is automatically set as the home thought.

I’m creating a brain to keep information about an American Revolutionary War historic site in Vermont where I volunteer. The screenshot below focuses in on the central thought, which, in this case, is the home thought and only thought.

PersonalBrain thought detail

A PersonalBrain "thought"

Notice the three small, blue circles. Those are called gates. The one just beneath “ep” is the child gate. The one on top is the parent gate, and the one to the left is the jump thought gate. To create a child thought, I click on the child gate and drag a line. A little dialog box pops up, where I can add the title of the new thought.

As I type, I will get a list of other thoughts from this brain with matching text. In this way, if I so choose, I can select an existing thought to link to, instead of creating a new one.

Navigating Your Brain

As you might imagine, information networks in PersonalBrain can get very large, very quickly. The developers have provided a few handy methods for ensuring that you can navigate your data efficiently. First of all, there is the home button, which will always take you back to the home thought (any thought in your brain can be designated the home thought; by default it is the first thought created when you build a new brain).

You can also “pin” any thoughts, which will then appear along the top of the plex. It is useful to pin frequently accessed thoughts, so you can navigate directly to them from anywhere in your brain. In the “Big Burn” screenshot from earlier in this review, you can see the pinned thoughts are “Interesting Words,” “Arts & Entertainment” and “History.”

The thought names displayed along the bottom of the plex are of recently viewed thoughts. This row often comes in handy when connecting thoughts, because you can draw links between any thoughts in the plex and thoughts in the history row.

All thoughts can be classified with one or more tags. Create tags for urgent thoughts or thoughts that need follow-up, or which pertain to certain colleagues. Whatever works best for you. Then click on the tag, and a virtual thought is displayed with all the thoughts with that tag.

For my brain about the historic site, I’ve created a list of historic characters associated with the site. I tagged each of these with their affiliation — either American or Britain. The screenshot below shows the virtual thought for the tag American, and lists those characters who fought on the American side.

PersonalBrain tags detail

Selecting a tag creates a virtual thought with tagged thoughts as children.

You can also give each thought a type. Types differ from tags in a couple of ways. You can assign multiple tags to a thought but give it only one type. Types can have hierarchy. That is, you can have a super type source, and sub-types of primary, secondary and tertiary, for example. Types can also have pre-defined characteristics, such as a common icon and color.

Links can be typed, the way thoughts can be to further define relationships.

A Real-World Example

So far I’ve given you the nuts and bolts of how PersonalBrain functions. Now I want to spend some time discussing how all this functionality comes together to make PersonalBrain different from other knowledge management solutions.

Most information managers are receptacles for notes of some kind or another. For example, when you create a new item in DEVONthink, you are generally creating a rich text or plain text note. You might also be dragging in a PDF or a web page. You can add an attachment or link, but essentially the content of the item is what matters.

When you add a new thought to a brain in PersonalBrain, you are not necessarily creating a note at all. Rather, you are creating a nucleus around which several different pieces of information revolve. This is best demonstrated with an example.

Say I’m planning a trip to Nova Scotia. Under my Travel thought I create a new thought called “Nova Scotia Vacation.” I then use the search the web function in PersonalBrain, which leads me to the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism site. I copy the URL and paste it into my Nova Scotia Vacation thought.

PersonalBrain web search detail

Press the F4 key to instantly access a web search dialog for the active thought.

After continuing my research, I add thoughts for attractions in Nova Scotia that I’d like to visit. Among these is the Fortress of Louisbourg, a national historic site on Cape Breton Island. I decide Louisbourg is going to be a major stop on the vacation, so I begin gathering more information, including a list of books to read.

Also, I learn that there is going to be a lecture about Louisbourg at my local library in April. I make a calendar listing. With “Fortress of Louisbourg” set as the active thought, my brain looks like this:

PersonalBrain thought as nucleus

Thoughts in PersonalBrain become a nucleus for additional information.

As my plans start to gel, I can add thoughts for accommodations and places to visit, such as museums and historic sites.

PersonalBrain museum detail

PersonalBrain for planning a vacation.

You could certainly organize a vacation with any number of applications, and possibly even as efficiently or more so. PersonalBrain, however, seems to aid the thought process, organically growing with your plans, and even catalyzing them.

Sharing a Piece of Your Brain

Sharing the information in a brain is pretty easy to do. You can export it as a “site brain,” which retains the plex-style navigation of the information, or as a simple html page. You can also upload your brain to webBrain, a web-hosting service provided by TheBrain Technologies.

Simple brains without attachments currently are hosted for free. If you want to post more complex brains with attachments, you will need to pay a fee — about $75 a year. This also allows you to keep brains synchronized across more than one computer, which I’ve found works well and is quite convenient.

A Few Missing Marbles

I don’t believe PersonalBrain is a substitute for a data catch-all like Yojimbo or DevonThink. It has no inbox for dumping information until you’re ready to deal with it. When you grab information you want to put into PersonalBrain you’ve got to know where you want it to reside in your brain.

PersonalBrain does not take advantage of Services, so you can’t save something to a brain through that method, nor can you print a PDF to a brain, as you can with most Mac information managers.

I’d also like to see saved searches that can be added to the plex, essentially mimicking how tagged items can be grouped beneath a virtual tag-thought.

And, while the company makes an effort to emphasize their support for Mac OS, it sometimes feels as if this platform is a second sister to the Windows version. For example, the Windows version has a nice auto-hide feature lacking in the Mac version.

For the most part, however, these issues are all minor and easy to overlook.

Three Editions to Choose From

As mentioned above, you can select from three editions:

Pro Edition ($249.95): The version I’ve reviewed here.

Core Edition ($149.95): Limits you to one attachment per thought. No export to folders, HTML or XML. No import of folders. No capture of thought icons. No calendar. One-computer license.

Free Edition: Though highly limited in features, this version retains the basic plex functions with notes and web links. It is a reasonable alternative to a mind mapper, and would make a convenient bookmark manager.

No Brainer?

PersonalBrain is a deep application, and I have not covered all its many features. The developer’s web site is full of informative tutorials and how-to videos that provide a richer understanding of the power of this product.

PersonalBrain is a unique personal knowledge manager, but it isn’t for everyone. If you prefer an information warehouse that you can access when necessary, but otherwise isn’t much on your radar, then you won’t go for PersonalBrain. If you prefer your applications behave Mac-like, you won’t go for PersonalBrain.

But if you like tinkering with your information, and enjoy the process of growing your knowledge base, PersonalBrain might be just what you’re looking for to get 2011 off to a well-organized start. Just like a GPS system that helps you navigate the wilds, PersonalBrain can help you find your way in the jungle of the information that comes your way.


PersonalBrain is a unique, multi-platform knowledge management tool that is fun to use and might even make you more productive.