An Interview with Alex Mullen, 2015 World Memory Champion
Alex Mullen at the MWB office. Photo by Tate Nations.
Alex Mullen is a medical student at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine who, in 2015, became the first American to win the World Memory Championships, ranking as the highest point scorer in the competition’s 24-year history.
Alex holds the Guinness World Record for most digits memorized in one hour (3,029), and he can memorize the order of a deck of cards in 17 seconds. In 2016, Alex launched Mullen Memory, an initiative he started with his wife, Cathy, to promote the use of memory techniques in school classrooms and universities.
What’s your background? How did you get interested in memory techniques?
MULLEN: I was born in New Jersey. But then I came down to Oxford when I was four. I went to Oxford High School and then Johns Hopkins for college.
The first time I ever found out about memory techniques was when I was a junior in college. Before that I had an average memory, and didn’t really know much about memory techniques. I dabbled with acrostics and stuff like that.
But I came across this TED talk by Joshua Foer [TED Video: Feats of Memory that Anyone Can Do], and I was just kinda blown away by the ingenuity of it. I learned about the “memory palace” technique, and just I couldn’t believe that this kind of thing existed and I hadn’t heard of it or that it wasn’t a bigger part of education. I was a little frustrated with my own memory at the time, and I think that’s part of the reason why I latched onto it. I read Foer’s book “Moonwalking with Einstein” and some other books.
So I was originally interested because I wanted to improve my memory for school. I felt like if I had a better memory, it would be helpful. And, then, I thought maybe I’ll do this competition type thing where you memorize numbers and cards and lists of random words, names and faces – I’ll do that and then try to get a better understanding of the techniques, so I can go back and use it in school.
I competed at the U.S.A. Memory Championship in 2014, and I got 2nd place there, which was way better than I expected. I’d been training, but I didn’t think I’d do as well as I did. So it was definitely exciting for me and motivating to continue practicing and doing bigger competitions.
I competed a few more times, I think five or six in total now. Then I had a lucky run and won the World Championship in China last December.
When I got to med school, I struggled at first a little bit, which was disheartening because I was having a hard time applying the techniques to what I was learning. So I struggled a little bit, but then I experimented. My wife also uses the techniques – so we sort of experimented together and worked some things out. Eventually, we got to a point where we were using them for pretty much everything we were learning and finding it very helpful since med school is obviously heavy on memorization.
We’ve been using the techniques for med school for about a year and a half now. I’m still competing. My next one is probably the U.S. Championship again in May.
I saw you have a record for memorizing digits?
MULLEN: Yeah, I have about six or seven U.S. records and one world record, which is the “hour digits” event. It sounds incredibly boring – and it is. You sit for one hour and they give you a big long number to memorize, and I was able to memorize 3,029 digits. Just the process of sitting down for an hour and then spending another two hours to recall it, which is how the event works, was pretty tough for me – someone who’s slightly ADD and can’t really focus and sit still for a long time.
Using the memory techniques has helped me develop my concentration. I don’t think I would have otherwise been able to sit for three whole days in China just memorizing the entire time. So the numbers were definitely a challenge, much harder, from a concentration standpoint, than memorizing one pack of cards.
You did get there very fast, though. How were you able to go from reading a book to being a memory champion in such a short period of time?
MULLEN: I think I trained well. I trained consistently, which I think it an important thing – between 30 minutes to an hour a day, usually. You do that over three years and you get pretty good.
There are a lot of people who do that also, who haven’t done as well as I have. And I think that’s just a matter of training effectively. Trying to identify weaknesses and improve, just the same as with sports. But that’s really it. I don’t think I have a very special memory. I forget where I put things all the time.
What’s your technique for memorizing cards and numbers?
MULLEN: For a lot of the events, you’re using basically the same technique, which is the memory palace technique. Most of the events are “sequential events” where you have to memorize the order of a deck of cards, the order of a long number, or the order of a list of 300 words. It’s all the same technique, which is the memory palace. You imagine a physical place that you know – you can pick these places ahead of time and have pre-planned routes, like sort of stops on the way in the memory palace. Then you visualize things in those places. Then you go back and see those images, as you go through the palace and recall the information. [Editor’s note: This technique is demonstrated in Mullen’s video, “The 20 Word Challenge.”]
There are differences in the way that people do it – how they convert cards or numbers into those images. Because, obviously, it’s not enough to just visualize the two of spades. Some people will turn that card into, for example, Michael Jackson. In my case, I’ll take each pair of cards and combine them into one image. So there are differences like that, but the general technique people use is the memory palace for most of the events. That’s basically how I do it for studying for school, too. There are a few others events that aren’t sequential – there’s a names and faces event. What people do there is just look at the face and try to find some sort of distinctive features, and then they’ll visualize something that represents the name and attach it to that feature somehow. So like if I were to do you, for instance, I might look at your hair and imagine Randy Johnson, the pitcher that played for the Diamondbacks for a while – maybe he’s throwing a baseball, and it’s zooming right across your hair like that. It’s really just about trying to be imaginative and creative with your visuals.
Anything that gives some meaning to an otherwise abstract thing is useful. But, in general, pictures are especially helpful because our minds tend to think that way. Pretty much everything in terms of the mnemonics that I do is based on some kind of visualization. Occasionally, I still use acronyms. Occasionally, I still use acrostic type sentences of phrases that have some sort of mnemonic meaning. But at least for me, the bulk of it is memory palace or just visualizing something in an empty space.
I still use repetition. I don’t think any memory technique is perfect. Even if I encode something in a memory palace, I’ll still go back and review it. If I come back in three weeks, it’s pretty much gone. But if you revisit it a couple days after, maybe a week after that, a month after that, then you’ve pretty much got it in longterm memory. The “spaced repetition” review process is helpful, regardless, even if you’re not using mnemonics. Using it in combination with mnemonic memory techniques really kinda kicks it up a notch.
A lot of people don’t really see the practical value of memorization. What real value does it offer?
MULLEN: At first glance, I think a lot of people would think, sure, it would be nice to have a better memory. You could use it to remember people’s names, presentations, facts – you know, it would be helpful. But at the same time, we live in an age of Wikipedia and smart phones, the Internet – does that really matter anymore?
Keep in mind, it’s not about trying to memorize everything. I don’t memorize the numbers in my phone. I don’t have any interest in doing that. I use memory techniques for specific things like remembering people’s names, which is helpful. But the real benefit to me is learning. When you encode, for instance, everything you’re learning in microbiology, for example, into images that you can recall easily, as you move forward, you recognize connections between the things you’re learning more easily.
But then there are plenty of details that, at the time, seem out of context. You can’t really understand them intuitively, they’re just facts. So what I like to do is convert those things into these visual images and remember them that way, and then down the line when you’re able to recall that information and keep it at the front of your mind, you can give context to those things that didn’t have context before. It’s all about seeing connections between things.
How do you think memory techniques could be beneficial for students?
MULLEN: One thing that I think is really the cornerstone of memory techniques that I think is helpful just to understand is this idea that creativity matters. When I was in school, in high school, I would use acronyms and I would feel that’s it’s helpful. But in a sense, I was unsure as to whether or not is was “cheating.” Nobody told me “you should use this” or “you can do this” or “you can visualize things that are sort of weird and help you remember things. Nobody really tells you that’s okay.
Trying to associate things with seemingly disconnected things is an important skill and students should know that it’s okay to do it. So just encouraging people to think creatively or try to associate connections between things, I think would be helpful and I’d like to see more of this type of thing in schools. Not even getting into the whole memory palace technique necessarily – that’s obviously very helpful, but there are more basic techniques than that.
So what do you hope to do with Mullen Memory?
MULLEN: I’ve been at this for about three years now, and pretty much from the beginning I wanted to start putting materials online so that I could have to have a platform to teach people how to use the techniques. Even though the book, Moonwalking with Einstein and Foer’s TED talk are so successful, the idea still is not out there enough and still not being used in schools.
Memory techniques are one of those things that are easy to understand but difficult to master. Take the “20 Word Challenge” video I did. It’s something that pretty much everybody can do. But then – and I’ve talked to some people who have done studies on this – at some point, people start to run into roadblocks trying to actually apply the techniques to learning. And they just give up.
That’s understandable. It happened to me. I obviously had a little more motivation to keep pushing on it. But it’s nice for people to have somebody in front of them who can say, here are some things that I struggled with. Here’s how to fix it. When I was coming up, trying to learn this stuff, there were plenty of videos out there saying here’s how memorize a list of 20 words. They may show you how to memorize somebody’s name, but they don’t teach you how to learn exam material. So I wished that I would have had some real examples of people doing that. And that’s something that I struggled with. But there are certain tricks that we use to make that process as easy as possible. So that’s what I’m trying to do with the website – to give people real-life examples and tutorials to solve some of those questions and basic roadblocks that I ran into.
Is it going to be a business for you?
MULLEN: That still remains to be seen. I really was motivated to get it going because of the world championship, and so it’s still getting off the ground. But, just in the first few weeks, the feedback has been really good. People like the videos. I get a lot of messages – every day. We’re taking a year off of med school next year, and I’m hoping to do some presentations and workshop seminars. I’m doing one actually in two days. Just to start to get the word out there just as much as I can.
My main passion with this is trying to get it into education because I think it can be really helpful. It’s certainly changed my life academically. I’m really focusing on schools and universities, rather than businesses, which is different from what a lot of other people do. My big message is that people can do it. A lot of people see me and think, okay, you can do it – you’re the world memory champion. And that’s really the reason why I made the 20 word challenge video. Just take 5 minutes, try it, and you can do it.