TheBrain Blog

Shelley Hayduk
May 6, 2008

Moving Beyond Information Hierarchies: An Introduction to Dynamic Mind Mapping

Many of our users ask if TheBrain is mind mapping software, file management software or something else… According to Mac|Life Magazine this month, TheBrain is the “most compelling computer adaptation of mind mapping encountered”. So I thought it only fitting to blog about: whether or not TheBrain is in fact “mind mapping software”, what exactly is TheBrain, and where does it fit into the array of desktop applications that you have running on your computer.

Flexible Knowledge Mapping – Networks Versus Hierarchies

Before we get into what TheBrain does, I think it’s important to reference some current issues with information management and your computer desktop. Almost all interfaces today, with the exception of TheBrain visual user interface, are limited to organizing information into hierarchies, where a piece of information can only be categorized into one place. For simple applications this is fine, but for users engaging in more complex business processes, it is simply inadequate. A document will have a variety of different issues or people associated with it – with hierarchies one cannot show all these relationships without multiple copies of the information.

File management systems on virtually all operating systems use folders and focus on separating information—they force you to divide information into containers.


Traditional directory trees confine information to a strict hierarchical organization and are incapable of expressing the multi-layered relationships that exist in the real world which people think about and draw meaning from in their ordinary Thought processes.

TheBrain takes the opposite approach—it enables you to link information into a network of logical associations. Any piece of information can be linked to any other piece. The power of TheBrain lies in the flexibility of these links. Users can quickly create structures of information that reflect the way they think about information. With TheBrain you can drag and drop files from folders or folders themselves. So you don’t have to abandon your filing system but you can visualize it in a manner that reflects your unique thought process.

Mind Mapping Software

Mind mapping helps you visualize concepts and ideas. Mind mapping was popularized by Tony Buzan and it is now offered by several software providers. These products are geared toward brainstorming and idea generation and are useful to convey decision processes and lateral thinking. A typical mind map interface displays topics horizontally branching out from one root node which does not change.


(Image from the Wikimedia Commons Image:MindMapGuidlines.JPG)

With most mind mapping software something at the bottom of one branch cannot be elegantly linked to something that is categorized in a distant branch unless your mind map is really small. So “mind maps” essentially have the same linear limitation that your computer filing system does. Because it is a spatial representation of information it simply runs out of space… However, they are an improved and better looking information hierarchy.

Visualizing Information Flow

In contrast to folder systems and mind maps, TheBrain provides the ability to display information in multiple categories and associative relationships. Items in TheBrain are called “Thoughts,” which can represent files, Web pages, or database records. TheBrain’s display is organized around a Thought, surrounded by all its related Thoughts. Clicking on any Thought brings it to the center of the display, and the interface is automatically reconfigured to new related Thoughts.

As you navigate through data, the information displayed on the screen is always related to the selected data. TheBrain lets you follow a train of Thought, flowing from one item to the next.


This approach provides several major advantages:

  1. Information can be dynamically loaded as it is needed, enabling infinite scalability so that vast amounts of information can be mapped.
  2. There is always a context for the current item, so details such as contact information can always be synchronized with the display and usage of the system can be accurately measured and reported against.
  3. Non-hierarchical relationships can be displayed. Because of the self-referencing nature of networked information, it is impossible to represent non-hierarchical information visually unless the display is rendered from the perspective of a selected item.

With conventional mind mapping software, each map cannot practically be larger than a few hundred items. TheBrain is designed to allow tens of thousands of items and files to be integrated into a single workspace. The software offers a dynamic visual display that is infinitely scalable. In fact, this same interface is in use at the Department of Defense, Encyclopedia Britannica and large Fortune 500s to navigate and visualize hundreds of thousands of objects and databases. It would be impossible to scroll through such large data sets with standard mind maps.

What Visualizing Non-Linear information Relationships Does for You

Networked data structures have been around long before the advent of computers, but today their relevance is surpassing that of the hierarchy. The explosion of social network analysis is merely a single example of how people are realizing the power of relationships in their information. Sales personnel need to see how key decision makers are connected to companies and other related executives for prospecting or to close a deal. IT managers need to see relationships between their servers and applications to support user communities effectively. The very Internet itself is based on not a linear structure, but on a flow of logical connections between concepts.

Every piece of information in a relational database, on a Web site, and even in people’s heads is a network structure yet today there is no way for users to display these critical relationships or allow users to interact with networks of information. The need to visualize key information relationships is further augmented by more powerful computers, the proliferation of information sources and increased pressure on people to juggle multiple roles and responsibilities.

TheBrain can help you link information together in a manner that captures these real world relationships and helps you make sense of them all. This also underscores TheBrain inventor, Harlan Hugh’s, original goal in creating a generalized software application that works the way people think. A system designed to capture thinking must represent information networks.

Our own organic Brains aren’t always linear. One Thought can lead to a cascade and convergence of many others, often leading to the most whimsical and brilliant of ideas. This is why so many of our users (including myself) have one very large Brain that is literally their digital Brain on their computer. For me, my Brain is a mental space that I’m creating and working in about me!! It allows me to make connections and remember things.

Mind Mapping Expert Opinions

So what do industry experts think? Chuck Frey, noted mind mapping blogger and mind mapping expert, uses TheBrain and said in his review “If you work with large amounts of information and have gotten frustrated by your ability to navigate and work with large mind maps, TheBrain is definitely worth a look.”

Eric Mack, eProductivity expert, has suggested that we “might” call TheBrain a “true mind mapping tool”, knowing full well what most people think mind maps should be and how TheBrain is different. He was most recently quoted in Michael Totty’s article in the Wall Street Journal stating “Often I discover new relationships and ideas that I was previously unaware of — ones that probably would not have otherwise become apparent,” using TheBrain.

James Burke, science historian and best selling author of “Connections” is not surprisingly a TheBrain user. It is the very core of visualizing nonlinear relationships that enables James Burke to connect historical inventions and thinkers together without limits. As James states “I chose TheBrain because after years of working on the Knowledge Web concept, with larger and larger sheets of paper, covered by spaghetti-like, criss-crossing lines, I was in danger of getting very lost in the maze. And worst of all, it wouldn’t move. TheBrain was just what I was looking for. And then some!”

What prolific thinkers like Jerry Michalski (owner of the world’s largest Brain) and James Burke are doing with their vast array of connections would not be possible in standard mind mapping software and certainly not possible with a folder directory. Moreover, since most of us are conceptual in nature I would venture a guess that your perspective may also need some web-like connections and go beyond basic subcategories.

The Bottom line

So to answer my original questions, I would feel comfortable describing TheBrain as dynamic mind mapping software or at the very least what mind mapping software ought to be, because moving beyond the limitations of static information hierarchies is critical to capture human thought. And yes, TheBrain lives very happily with other mind maps and most definitely your computer filing system. In fact, you can even store all your mind maps in TheBrain and some of our users do.

For individuals, organizing information in a manner that more directly matches and captures their thought processes increases personal productivity. For companies, these benefits are further augmented by the collective contributions of many, increasing corporate IQ and yielding a new level of group collaboration (through our enterprise software, BrainEKP). But most importantly, seeing and connecting your information like this will inevitably surprise you and open up a new world of insight. Often, I’ll click on a Thought and see linked topics that I forgot about and now remember. You might even feel more at home, more connected, more like yourself on your machine.

Tags: Hierarchies File Management Information Management Knowledge Management Mind Mapping Visualization

Filed under: Most Popular Articles Mind Mapping and Information Visualization

More posts by: Shelley Hayduk