If you've been following me for a while, you might know that I have written about PersonalBrain before (list of articles). I am still using it as my primary organization tool. They've released version 6, and I wasn't completely sure about making the upgrade. But then I also couldn't think of how else I would organize all the stuff I collect. Happily, the good folks at PersonalBrain offered a free upgrade with the request that I write up my impressions. Thanks!
PersonalBrain falls into the general category of topic mapping tools. Topic maps generally allow any number of connections between the topic nodes, from just about any direction. This is as opposed to a mind map which is focused on a specific topic, and all children are inherently related to the central theme. In a topic map, there is no "center" other than how the person/software drawing the map decides to show the map. PersonalBrain calls the topics thoughts and they can have parents (above the current thought), children (below the thought), and jump ("relatives" or "neighbors" to the left of the thought). I particularly like this, as many of the things I keep track of have multiple connections into my other work. For a simple example, our home insurance information is related both to our general finances AND to our mortgage, so it is connected to both as parents. My primary use of PersonalBrain is a place to collect all my stuff - it's a replacement for both the standard Windows filing system (files in nested folders) and internet bookmarks. It is sometimes surprising to see the connections between things that appear as I go along. But it's just as easy to make a brain that is focused on a specific topic, if I so choose. One new thing in version 6, is that I can interconnect multiple brains, if necessary.
I keep nearly all my storage and recall materials in PB: documents, articles, spreadsheets, presentations, receipts, expense reports, mind maps, web links, meeting notes, background materials, etc. etc. etc. Any document that comes to me in email that I might want to keep gets dragged out of the message and directly into PersonalBrain. I could attach Outlook items, but I've never found this capability very intuitive. The only things I don't keep in here are associated with other programs that need more traditional storage. (The files are still accessible via the Windows Explorer, but the path names are non-obvious: "..My DocumentsJack Vinson_brainFiles344A0856-4C2F-B160-E5AD-CC0C3236FBFC"). Checking the statistics, I have 2500 thoughts with 3000 interconnections and about as many file attachments - some thoughts have no attachments, others have many. I might keep even more web links here if I didn't have ActiveWords running, where I keep quick-access links to anything I use on a regular basis - websites and files.
How do I find stuff amongst all of this? It is quite easy. The main window (the "plex") has a search box that finds "thoughts" as you type - partial matches come up too. That's usually the fastest for me, but the other element that helps me is the visual organization itself. Each thought can have multiple parents, children or relatives, and I can easily see these as I go to a thought where I've expected to capture things. And if these two methods don't work, that same search box that goes directly to the thoughts will also let me run a full-text search of all the notes and attached files - I rarely have to use this capability because of the visual organization and the quick access to thoughts by typing their name.
Of course, in the process of writing these comments, I discovered (or rediscovered) a number of things I enjoy about PersonalBrain. There are all sorts of user interface tweaks and options that one can try out - many of which I don't use on a regular basis. The PB window can be docked to the side of the computer, or transparent, or run in mini-mode, or .... One example is shown here: the normal view focuses on one thought with its parents, children and jump thoughts (first graphic above). This is an "expanded" view where you can optionally expand each of the surrounding thoughts to get a bigger sense of the related thoughts - really highlighting that the topic map hierarchy essentially vanishes with significant inter-linking. Another handy feature is the ability to synchronize across multiple computers or share brains via a (freemium) WebBrain service. And you can always export your brain to a local set of HTML files - I left a HTML brain behind when I left my last job.
Based on several weeks of experience, the shift from PersonalBrain 5.5 to 6.0 wasn't as dramatic as the shift from version 4 to 5, where the UI got a number of tweaks and overall improvements, such as the ability to have multiple attachments for a given thought. With version 6, they've improved a number of smaller elements of the UI and there are a lot of behind-the-scenes improvements, as usual. There are also a number of features that are new or improved, but I have become somewhat stuck in terms of how I use PB, and haven't given many of these a chance. For example, there has been a tagging facility for a while, and the new version has some new capabilities here, but I haven't needed it - yet. I've explored thought types and coloring in the past, but again, it hasn't been as critical for me lately. This is similar to my experience with mind maps: I'd rather record the connections than make colors and other elements stand out.