News & Features


Linking Your Thinking

A software brain that personalizes your PC so it's organized the way you think

(January 31, 2000)
About two years ago, I was introduced to a fascinating and, frankly, offbeat piece of software called The Brain, from The Brain LLC (formerly Natrificial Software Technologies Inc.) in Santa Monica, Calif. I used the product for a while and then stopped. Recently, I caught up with the product again, and it's just as intriguing now as it was then.

You may have noticed that I haven't yet said what The Brain is or what it does. That's because there isn't any convenient label I can tack on to it.

The Brain (currently at Version 1.73) is a tool for managing information by visually organizing resources on the computer or Internet according to whatever scheme makes sense to you, completely independent of the file system.

The terminology is a little strange. The Brain uses a 3-D network to link what it calls "thoughts" — graphic objects that can be anything from a label or Web address to a directory or document, or even a server or outside network. These thoughts are displayed on a field called the Plex.

At the center of the screen display is what's called the "active thought," together with the parent, child and sibling thoughts that are linked to it. Click on any nonactive thought and it gets rotated into the center. Not all thoughts are visible at one time — just the active thought and those other thoughts that are directly linked to it. Double-click on the active thought and it opens whatever you have associated with it, such as a document or application.

After using The Brain again, I've come to appreciate how this type of tool makes me think about how I think. As a computer user since before the term PC was coined, I've gotten pretty settled into dealing with hierarchical file- and directory-oriented tools such as Windows Explorer.

That's a comfortable system, but it's certainly true that I often have to think about where I put a particular file, or I have to actually do a search to find that file. So that's a price I pay for adopting the organization that fits the hardware and software better than it fits me.

But with The Brain, I can set up logical links from any project to any file or document. I can set up my work based on projects, timetables, geography or any combination of those and other organizing principles that make sense to me. Just using The Brain makes me think a little harder about how I organize things in my head.

To give you an example of this flexibility, consider the Brain view in Figure 1: Here, the active thought is my index of work in progress for future issues of Computerworld. As I hover the cursor over one section, the links to it are highlighted in yellow to make them more visible. The exact same Brain is shown in Figure 2, except that I'm highlighting some of my personal interests.

Using The Brain takes quite a bit of getting used to. It's not hard, but it's so different that I feel a strong push to go back to my old ways, where I don't have to think quite so much about what I'm doing. But that's really just a learning-curve issue. The imperative isn't to learn the system but to change habits of thought.

The Brain was conceived in 1993 by Harlan Hugh, a young information technologist who felt the need to focus on the connections between information instead of the separations. He wanted to concentrate on the information itself, not on how it's handled under the hood of the computer. That's why representations in The Brain are based on content, not on format or physical location, and direct links are clearly shown. Hugh, now president of the company, has six patents pending on his Brain technology.

Although not too much publicity has been given to The Brain, it has attracted an impressive group of investors, including Randall Kaplan, one of the co-founders of Akamai Technologies Inc.; EarthLink Network Inc. founder Sky Dayton; and industry pundit Esther Dyson of EDventure Holdings Inc.

There are three products available: The Personal Brain (a 30-day trial version is downloadable from, a version designed to simplify navigation on Web sites (see Figure 3, a Web site at Columbia University) and a development kit that can be used to embed Brain technology in other applications.

The Brain also offers the ability to publish a Brain to a server on the company's Web site to make your Brain accessible to others. Any thoughts you don't want made public can be tagged as private and won't be copied.

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