The Magic Rule of 7 – Moronic Myth or Useful Rule of Thumb?

A reader supplied some links which contradict a portion of the BrainStormWFO sales page:

From the presentation: “Note that BrainStormWFO “auto-hoists”. This means that you are always focused on just one layer of the outline. This helps your brain relax, since you can only think about 7 items simultaneously anyway.”
I don’t intend to elaborate on this discussion, or this specific topic, I am just posting the links below for reference:,_Plus_or_Minus_Two

My reply (to the links, not to the reader, whose opinions it doesn’t represent):

I understand that the topic of cognition is quite complex, and I am not making any claims about structuring lists, writing longtext documents or designing layouts.

I am saying that simultaneous comprehension of the interconnections between all child entries of an outline’s parent entry is limited to about 7 brief items, or less.

This is a general rule; obviously there are places where you would make exceptions.

The main fallacy of the misapplications dissected in the articles linked to is that most situations do not require simultaneous apprehension. It is perfectly acceptable to scan through a document serially, rather than attempting to comprehend its entirety at once. However, when rapidly structuring an outline, we need to immediately comprehend the entirety of the “small picture” at each layer, so that the “big picture” can automatically build itself with minimal mental exertion.

I find that 7 is the practical limit for this, and often I prefer 6 or 5.

The rule of 7 does refer to an experimentally verified limit of human mental capacity; it is just that cognition in practical situations has many ways of getting around this limitation, so trying to apply a rule of 7 naively as a general rule for designing everything is quite stupid.

I am not just talking about short term memory, the capacity to store and recall, but also the capacity to comprehend as an interconnected whole. The visuo-spatial analogue would be thinking of how seven moving parts interact in an engineering design.

Furthermore, the last link claims the number is even lower, 3 or 4. Perhaps this is true, but that is irrelevant since we do not have to remember by brute force when constructing an outline in BrainStormWFO; the text is remembered for us on the screen. We need only comprehend the interrelationships, i.e. ensure our categories are properly divided.

I think 3 or 4 is too simplistic for most people; 5 or 6 is where I’m most comfortable.


How to Write Fiction with BrainStormWFO and Random Word Generator

I’ve been having a recurring idle fancy of writing some fiction myself lately, but couldn’t seem to put pen to paper. Figured I might not have the talent.

Then on a whim I used a random word generator and started trying to sort the resulting output using the outliner at . That sort of seeded my brain with random associations that seeded my brain to give me an initial idea and to continue whenever I got stuck.

The result was pretty derivative, just a rough outline of a random narrative, but some original ideas too. I figure if I keep doing that kind of thing regularly, I’ll start building up raw material. With continual reworking, it might eventually morph into something decent.


James Fallows Review – New York Times

James Fallows, National Correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote the following about BrainStorm in the TECHNO FILES article, What Do TiVo and the Mac Mini Have in Common? Mr. Fallows has written and blogged about BrainStorm many times since this October 2005 article, noting that he uses BrainStorm on his MAC.

Worth highlighting in his first review…

Its display is text only, with no graphic grace notes, and the only thing it does is manage lists – of ideas, tasks, references, names. Behind this simplicity is surprising power, or so I have found since buying it on a friend’s recommendation several months ago. The program makes it very quick and easy to add, subtract, rearrange, or reconsider information you are working with.

“Next is a truly obscure underdog: software called BrainStorm, created and sold by two independent programmers in England. Its kind of elegance, quite distinct from the style and polish of the Mac or TiVo, is the stripped-down functional beauty of an excellent sharpened knife.

BrainStorm is a return to the early days of personal computing, in its resemblance to outstanding DOS-era programs like XyWrite and GrandView. Its display is text only, with no graphic grace notes, and the only thing it does is manage lists – of ideas, tasks, references, names. Behind this simplicity is surprising power, or so I have found since buying it on a friend’s recommendation several months ago. The program makes it very quick and easy to add, subtract, rearrange, or reconsider information you are working with.

BrainStorm is not for everyone. Fortunately, it offers a 30-day free trial.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams & BrainStorm

Early 1980s

Douglas Adams, writer, dramatist, musician and author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, faxed this letter to David Tebbutt, BrainStorm creator and founder.

Douglas Adams remarks about BrainStorm…

I’m beginning to boggle at the scope of your programme. It’s quite extraordinary – and addictive.

…and making us wonder, if BrainStorm were available in the 70’s, would he have written The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in BrainStorm?

To see the letter, go here Douglas Adams Fax to BrainStorm or read it in full below.

“Here, as promised, is Brainstorm properly configured to use the Rainbow line-drawing graphics. If you SUBMIT BRAIN you will load the function key processor which works with it. You will probably find the key assignments I’ve made seem strange to you. I’m still experimenting, and trying to make the controls correspond as closely as I can to my word processing function keys. Changing key assignments is very easy and self explanatory. Simply type FK from the system prompt to get into the function key programme and make changes. Each key will take up to 128 characters. Come to think of it, the programme’s documentation on disk so I’ll add that on.

I’ve also included some information from the Rainbow technical manual and from a recent article which enable you to speed up the VDU display. It’s pretty slow at the moment.

I’m beginning to boggle at the scope of your programme. It’s quite extraordinary – and addictive.

One or two questions.

What’s BRUN.COM for? It gets mentioned in passing in the manual but never explained.

Is there any way of deleting all occurrences of a namesake? I’m sure there must be and I just haven’t found it yet.

Loading and saving are rather tedious chores at the moment. Three useful facilities to incorporate would be:

1) The ability to reset the default drive during INSALLB.

2) The ability to invoke the appropriate .BRN file at the same time you load the programme. For example:            >brain diary.brn

3) A quick save capability. So that everytime you go and get a cup of coffee you can hit a couple of keys and update your disk whilst you’re away. That way, REBRAIN becomes less necessary – prevention is better than cure.

Will the 16-bit version allow you to use all your computer’s available memory? And run other programmes outside BRAINSTORM? That way you would have just one huge personal database which you would simply stay in all day whatever work you were doing. The possibilities are endless.

Anyway, congratulations on a brilliant idea. Hope it makes you a rich man.

Best wishes,

Douglas Adams”

Registering for the BrainStorm forum

Hi everyone, David here.

A few times recently, BrainStorm users have written to ask why they can’t get into the forum even though they’ve signed up. The sad answer is that we have tried all manner of ways of stopping the spam applications but they keep pouring in. The genuine applicants are hard to spot.

A couple of months ago, we added a note to the confirmation emails to explain this and to ask people to write to us directly with their chosen user name. We would then activate them manually.

So, if you’re someone who’s tried to join the forums but without success, this could be the answer. Please drop us a line – ‘support’ at brainstormsw etc (I’m trying to avoid attracting even more spam) – and we’ll sort you out.

BrainStorm and Vista

If BrainStorm ever crashes in Vista, right click the icon you use to activate it and select ‘Properties’. Then ‘Compatibility’ then the XP option.

I’ve been using it on Vista for a couple of weeks and, yesterday, experienced a couple of crashes. Hard to nail down because I couldn’t repeat them. But I’ve gone for ‘Compatibility’ mode and nothing’s happened since.

I’ll keep you posted.

Picking the wheat from the chaff

I’ve been using BrainStorm for 27 years and I’ve just discovered a new trick. I can’t believe it’s taken so long.

I’ve just hoovered up masses of information from the internet using Magic paste.

The result needs to be picked though to identify the important bits.

It’s just occurred to me to make a new model – call it nuggets – and set Magic paste on there. Go back to the large file and just highlight and copy the interesting bits. These don’t have to be whole entries, they can be phrases from within an entry.

End result: plenty of readable wheat and no chaff

Someone with writing issues

Recently, I was talking with someone who has trouble with writing. She’s great at talking and is very articulate. Somehow, when it comes to writing, she has issues. The words never come out as well as she speaks and the logical flow gets lost.

I’ve just dropped her a note, the main content of which follows. It starts by talking about a mutual contact:

… I think he’s rather keener on MindJet’s MindManager now. But, at the time, he got a lot of value out of BrainStorm.

The two programs are not synonymous. BrainStorm grabs your thoughts and text clippings from anywhere quickly and easily and lets you bugger about with them – moving, structuring, editing and so on.

As I mentioned the other day in London, I use it a lot. (Background, I wrote it originally to help me with managing, editing and writing – in 1981.)

It occurs to me that you might find it useful, especially for grabbing the key points, establishing a sequence, identifying and filling gaps, and outputting a template for whatever it is you’re trying to write.

It sits in a space apart from outliners (although it resonates with them) and mind mappers (although it resonates with them too). It was written before both appeared on the market. It is text. It is simple. It is fast. It doesn’t get in the way of your thinking.

There are some screencasts here:

I can’t remember which is best to start with, but ‘real life organisation’ would appear to hold promise.

The website, as you’ve probably realised, is and the program is free to download and use for 30 days. I can extend that if you need more time to evaluate it. The download is only a couple of meg and installation takes about a minute.

I’m not going to claim it’s intuitive – although some people fall for it straight away. It’s something to do with how we’re wired, I think.

In essence it’s a list. Any entry in the list can have its own list ‘underneath’ – double click on an entry’s icon or press ‘Home’ and it becomes a heading, ready for its own list. The same entry can appear in multiple places and they’re automatically hyperlinked. This has powerful uses which I won’t bore you with here.

The whole can be displayed as an outline for when you’re figuring out how far you’ve got or whether there are gaps or too much information.

And it can be printed, written to a file, published as HTML or OPML and so on. Frankly, the publishing aspects are not central. The ‘Write to clipboard’ is probably the most useful output because you can then drop the text (or the outline) into another program.

I thought that if this description helps my friend, it might help you.

PS I have just installed and created a small project in MindManager Pro 7. It’s a totally different animal and I really shouldn’t have mentioned it in the same breath as BrainStorm. It is a comprehensive graphical mind-mapping program with all manner of presentational features and project management tools. BrainStorm is much more of a personal tool: a mind assistant primarily for your own benefit. Think Segway versus jumbo jet.

Collecting all entries that contain certain text

Long-standing BrainStorm user, Jack Rickards was struggling with trying to list the entries in BrainStorm that contained the same text. He could "find" and "find again" but that wasn’t enough.

Here’s the email exchange that led to a solution that worked for him.

From Jack:

This may be a WIBNI request or something I have stupidly overlooked that is already possible in the all-encompassing BrainStorm.

I realize that one can do a "find" and continue doing "find agains" on a text string and, with a split screen, copy the result of these multiple finds into a new list. Is there a way to ask BrainStorm to generate a list of all occurrences of a text string?

I have, in a BrainStorm model, projects all over the place under various major headings. I have included in these project titles, a priority code and a now/later code, for example [A1/now]. Obviously I am looking for a quick and dirty way to generate all my "A1/now"s in a separate list.

From me:

On the "all strings" – I usually "Write" "Only entries containing this text" to the clipboard then paste. The pasted lines form namesakes with the originals (of course). You may want to write just one level.

Or not.

Let us know if this helps.

From Jack:

Thanks David. That works great. What an incredible and powerful feature for setting & retrieving tagged info’ throughout a BrainStorm model. David I suspect this is just one of many great features that are fully implemented yet not being pitched!

Phew! Glad that solved your problem, Jack.