Nicole van der Hoeven published one of her videos on using Obsidian on the topic of the ExcaliBrain plugin. The plugin is made by Zsolt Viczián, the same creator as the Excalidraw plugin which brings easy visualisation to Obsidian. I use Excalidraw within Obsidian with some regularity (I’m mostly text oriented).

It’s not mentioned in the video, but the ExcaliBrain plugin is clearly inspired by The Brain software, both in terms of types of links between notes, and how it shows them (even the placement of the little circles where links attach). The name suggests so too, and the plugin author names The Brain as source of inspiration in the github reposository. I used The Brain as desktop interface from 1997 until 2004-ish, and this plugin seems to bring The Brain as a visualisation layer to my notes. That alone is enough to try it out.

The plugin can both infer relationships between notes, through existing links, much as the general graph view in Obsidian does, but does so in a more navigable style. This I hope allows it to be used as a visual navigation interface to notes, something the graph view does not meaningfully, as The Brain so usefully did for me for a number of years.

You can also set explicit relationships by adding named links to your notes, for which it uses the inline data fields (yourfieldname::) that the DataView plugin makes possible. I already use that plugin so that’s not an extra step for me.
I disagree with Nicole van der Hoeven on her suggestion to comment out explicit relationships so that the plugin will visualise them but the note won’t show the links, except in edit mode.
The notes should always show all links I explicitly set, that’s the whole point of links.
Machine inferred links are a different matter, which deserve a toggle as they are suggestions made to me.
Links are my own and real work in my notes.

Setting explicit links (parent, child, friends ExcaliBrain calls them) is similar to how I already create links. When I write a new note I aim to link other notes in the way Soren Bjornstadt describes in a video of his touring his Zettelkasten. I make three links, if possible, from a new note. One to a higher level of abstraction note, one to a lower level of abstraction but more concrete note, and one to a related note at the same level. This creates ‘chains’ of 4 notes with a content-based implied order.

For example: a note on the role of public transport might link to urban mobility and the liveability of car-free city centers as higher abstration concepts, to a note on urban rail systems or bus networks as a lower abstraction level, to the German 2022 summer reduced fare scheme as an example, and to another communal public service like urban public internet as a same level but different type of note.

I strongly dislike the parent-child-sibling(-friend) vocabulary Excalibrain introduces though, as it implies an order of creation. Parents exist first, children from parents. This means for the way I described creating links in notes that abstract concepts come first. This is not how it mostly works for me. Abstract notions are often created from, intuited from, less abstratct ones. The scaffolding created by less abstract notes and concrete examples is what leads to them. Overarching concepts and insights emerge from linking lower level items. Thankfully the terms you actually use to denote such connections between notes can be freely chosen in the plugin settings. That is a design choice by Zsolt Viczián I greatly appreciate.

Nicole van der Hoeven in her run-through of ExcaliBrain also talks about this implied hierarchy, and mentions a higher level type of use, which is adding more semantics to links using the renaming options in the plugin settings. For instance to express lines of argumentation, and how material reflects on eachother (e.g. Note A reinforces / contradicts Note B). This is the type of linking that Tinderbox allows you to do visually too, which I’ve used a lot. She hasn’t used it that way herself yet she says, but suggests it’s likely the most valuable use case. I think that rings true. It’s where linking becomes the work you have to do yourself again, as opposed to lazy or automatic linking between notes.

I very much want to experiment with the ExcaliBrain plugin.


A screenshot after activating ExcaliBrain of the vicinity of a single note

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