Rethinking Knowledge Management: PersonalBrain User Accumulates 80,000 Thoughts

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Article ImageThe market for content and knowledge management systems and solutions is a crowded one—so much so that it can sometimes feel as if there are as many offerings out there as there are, say, neural pathways in the human brain. But there is probably only one knowledge management product that takes the inspiration for its design directly from that most complex and intricate of organs. PersonalBrain, a product of TheBrain Technologies, links networks of information including ideas, concepts, files, and webpages in a manner that attempts to mimic the thought processes of each unique user. Last year, TheBrain Technologies, a provider of visualization and dynamic mind-mapping software, released the fourth version of the PersonalBrain product, and last month the company celebrated a milestone in usage when one user surpassed 80,000 thoughts in his Brain.

What does it mean, exactly, to put that many “thoughts” in one’s PersonalBrain? “My PersonalBrain is like my enhanced memory,” says Jerry Michalski, a technology consultant and analyst and the founder of Sociate, who has maintained a PersonalBrain for 10 years. “The software’s dynamic interface and linking features make it fast and simple to capture and visualize critical relationships and ideas that might otherwise be lost in my head.” As the largest and best maintained PersonalBrain produced by a single individual, it is a model for what TheBrain Technologies sees as the potential for the use of visual mapping in a knowledge management context.

In a recent online demonstration, Michalski showed how his PersonalBrain works. Whenever he has a “thought” he wants to keep track of, whether it’s in the form of a document, a website, or any other type of content, he inputs it into his PersonalBrain. He can then link thoughts up with other thoughts based on their relationships to one another. For instance, at one point in the online demonstration Michalski navigated to his list of favorite words. From that list he selected “mindfulness,” which led him to a list of subordinate thoughts, one of which described a Buddhist monk. The monk was also categorized under the broader category of “spiritual writers.” Michalski navigated around his PersonalBrain in this way for several minutes, demonstrating how he was able to wander through his PersonalBrain in much the same way his own mind might wander, from general to specific thoughts with connections that might not always be readily apparent to anyone else.

The PersonalBrain product strives to shirk accepted knowledge management convention in its approach to mapping information. Rather than taking a static, 2D view of information, PersonalBrain utilizes a proprietary animation technology—devoid of spatial limitations—that displays each piece of information in the system in relation to all of its associated content. The PersonalBrain interface takes the form of an intricate web. Each thought has arms sprouting off of it that lead to “parent” thoughts, “child” thoughts, and “sibling” thoughts, showing not only that relationships between two thoughts exist but indicating precisely the nature of that relationship. The interface also features an “instant activation” search box that takes the user to any thought in his Brain in only a matter of seconds.

Michalski’s brain is also unique in that it is freely available for anyone to view. Navigating to allows you to literally pick Michalski’s brain (or at least pick through it). Over the years, thousands of curious onlookers have paid it a visit. Thoughts in his PersonalBrain range from a comprehensive mapping of the technology and venture capital industry to his own social and philosophical beliefs.

“What is most impressive about Jerry’s Brain beyond the sheer size of it is the enhanced understanding that is gained by viewing his thought relationships,” said Harlan Hugh, TheBrain’s chief technology officer. “I’m a regular user of his Brain. It’s a great resource for all types of people in the technology industry. We’re very grateful to Jerry for opening up his thoughts and ideas to the public. It is an excellent example of the scalability of PersonalBrain software and a testament to a great thinker.”