I received a thoughtful email from a data visualization expert yesterday that I thought I would share just in terms of his reactions to Brains as a communications medium. 

"Mind maps are very flexible but have some inherent limitations when it comes to visualizing large-scale patterns (seeing the forest, not just the trees), and when used for navigation as you are doing:

  • They are mostly words (so you have to read them to understand them)
  • They tend to use space arbitrarily (so link positions alone don’t convey much meaning other than local grouping)
  • They don’t scale well (forcing you to explore them through a keyhole once they get beyond a certain size)

As a result, it’s hard for the user to maintain context.  The experience is like wandering in a maze. When you first enter the maze you have no idea whatsoever about how large and deep it is, and once you are inside it you can only see your immediate surroundings, so quickly become lost.

As long as you are committed to using this particular tool, there is not much you can do to overcome these limitations, other than constantly trimming your hierarchy so that there are never too many links on any one level.  Color coding or guidepost patterns in the background images might help if they were consistent, but I’m not sure how much control the brain software gives you over this sort of thing.  Are you open to exploring other tools or forms of visualization?

 When I work with people on visualizations and user experience I try to get them to focus on exactly what they are trying to accomplish.  Who is your user?  What precisely is this user trying to do?  How exactly will your brain help them do this?

 I agree completely with your E. O. Wilson quote that we are drowning in information while starving for wisdom.  How does your chess brain alleviate this problem?  In one of your videos you mentioned that the brain preserves links that would otherwise be forgotten and hard to rediscover via googling.  But is that really the primary problem you are trying to solve?  If so, how does a hiding those links inside a vast maze help?

 Or are you instead trying to create a guided experience that encourages people to browse and find links they’ve never seen before?  That’s a very different goal.  If so, what principle do you use when choosing links for your collection?  Are you trying to promote a certain perspective?  What are you doing to entice the user and encourage them to stay and keep exploring?

 Or are you trying to create a shared resource for the resistance community, one that will somehow evolve and incorporate their insights?  If so, is it really possible to do that while maintaining sole control over the topic tree and link choices?  Why not make a wiki instead?

 Or do you want to convey an overall impression of universe of information and reveal high-level patterns that might help people think more strategically?  Is so, wouldn’t it be important to incorporate the element of time so that users could see how the brain has been changing?  Wouldn’t it be useful to show where recent activity is and where it isn’t?  How would you do that through a keyhole?

 I ask these questions not to be rude, but to help you zero in on *exactly* what you are really trying to accomplish.  Once you have that nailed down, it will be easier to tell whether or not you are succeeding.


I feel like I see this reaction frequently.  Why don't you use this solution or why don't you use that solution? My sense is that generally the people making these statements haven't been given a good presentation on the capabilities or workings of TheBrain.  Until you have worked a bit with TheBrain or at a minimum received a thorough presentation on the capabilities of TheBrain, you won't appreciate the advantages that it provides over alternative methods of communication.  Just my experience.

Richard O. Wood
Thanks Mark, that was good feedback indeed.

Thinking on it a bit, the reason why TheBrain works well for me is because I'm making the connections initially. I'm making the decision of what is related and what isn't, and thus form a map or model of relationships in my mind which can be refreshed by re-visiting that section. This means my maps can be fairly complex, because I had the original mental model in addition to the visual representation of it.

However, my use of other non mind map tools (ConnectedText and others) showed me the importance of content as well. For me the thought re-presents an item. But for my most used and useful areas, I build out the content in the notes, or meta data (links, attachments, events) so the content tells me exactly what I need to see when I get to the item itself. That is why I find adding URL links and links to other thoughts within the note so useful and important in addition to linking via the plex.

When I come to someone else's Brain database I don't have the luxury of having created the links and content, I have no mental model, so I'm reliant on the structure (both content and context) being clear in the one I'm looking at. This is very hard to do in a way that isn't overwhelming to someone unfamiliar with the subject matter but familiar with TheBrain, let alone someone both unfamiliar with the subject matter AND TheBrain. Unfortunately here TheBrain tools are limited in pre-defined structures and the WebBrain capability. In addition, TheBrain has it's own model (parent, child, jump) that someone has to comprehend and then re-map the relationships to their own preconceived model of the structure.

I don't know if that was helpful at all, but I just thought I'd share.
macOS 10.12.4
TheBrain 9.0.188
All of these points are true, and the question is whether they can be overcome.  Right now when it comes to Webbrain we have so little ability to ease users into a Brain that we're pretty much out of luck. I've invested huge amounts of time trying to structure links and content so that someone coming in without the benefit of the background Zenrain refers to doesn't have to be overwhelmed.  But with no ability to use one-way thoughts to structure what people see, or to use basic "report" abilities to allow users to structure what they want to see, or to be able to filter TheBrain content in any way, it's VERY difficult to overcome the problems of cognitive overload in anything but the simplest of Brains (and the simplest of Brains totally miss the whole point of Brains).  I don't think that's inherently a TheBrain problem, it's just that no one has ever paid any attention to the problem before since the business model of TheBrain is exclusively based on desktop access.  If we would think a bit on how to allow others into TheBrain Club without overwhelming or scaring them to death, there's a huge opportunity there.  But it requires some effort.
The metaphors offered by your correspondent of dropping through the keyhole and wandering through the maze resonated with me. I feel like this in my own Brain when it gets complex.  And I want to share my work more broadly but am concerned about these very issues that could confuse more readers than enlighten them.

On the other hand, the suggestion of using a wiki as an alternative to The Brain seems equally maze-like. A wiki can seem contextless when hopping from link to link.  The difference, I suppose, is that a wiki can show an ever-present outline of topics to orient the reader.

SUGGESTIONs for the Brain:
  1. Have a display view that shows the outline of linked topics and subtopics in a window (to orient the reader to context)
  2. Optionally indicate the number of linked topics and subtopics on the link line.
  3. Other visual cues?

I have found this discussion to be immensely helpful....
  • I think much of the feedback Mark received from the data visualization expert was spot on;
  • I share Mark's concerns about the challenges associated with sharing large, complex brains with others; and
  • I agree completely with ZenRain that:
  • -- (1) much of the sense and sensibility in any brain is directly tied to the process of the creating the brain itself and
  • -- (2) our own design logic/intent may NOT be immediately transparent to brain visitors, in spite of our best efforts to make the brain's organizational structure clear and transparent.

I have also gone to great effort, following DrBop's logic, to create a comprehensive table of contents (TOC) for one the training brains I've created, in the hope of providing a clearer overview and context for my brain's users....

..and I'm wondering now if we could turn DrBop's suggestion into a specific feature request:

> Would it be possible at some point to provide an optional (new tab or new window) outline view in the webbrain so users could effectively use the outline as a TOC and navigation guide?

I'm also curious, Richard: do you use TheBrain, either directly or indirectly, in working with your consulting clients?

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