This article was originally printed in Issue 427 (January/February) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
Alex Mullen is the first American to win the World Memory Championships and the highest point-scorer in the 24-year history of the competition. Holder of seven memory world records, he is the top-ranked memory athlete in the world. He is also the 2016 USA memory champion and holds a Guinness World Record for most digits memorized in one hour (3,029). He is also a third-year medical student at the University Of Mississippi School Of Medicine. A truly dominant force in the world of memory, I wanted to know how Alex used his memory systems to enhance his real-life learning.
Daniel Kilov: Your ascendancy to world memory champion has been nothing short of meteoric. Can you give me a sense of what your training looked like before you won the WMC? Are there any drills, methods of training techniques that you think might have given you an edge over the competition?
Alex Mullen: Well, I certainly don’t think I have any secret formulas! My training methods and systems aren’t too different from any other competitor. Most of my practice is just based on whatever motivation I’m feeling in the moment, which tends to skew toward chasing personal bests in the sprint disciplines, like speed cards. Those types of events are generally more fun for me, so I’m usually focusing on going fast, rather than training for endurance or accuracy or something like that.
Daniel: I understand that your entry into the world of memory was motivated by a desire to learn more effectively. You’ve obviously found a great deal of value in memory techniques since then but I’m curious as to whether or not the techniques met your original expectations as a tool for practical learning.
Alex: At first, they didn’t, funnily enough. I first tried to use them for a biomedical engineering lab course I took in college. While the techniques worked to some extent, I found them pretty inefficient, slow to use. And they didn’t seem to give me the giant leg-up on everyone else I’d been hoping for. After getting frustrated and setting them aside for a while, I finally picked them back up again before starting medical school. Luckily, as a memory competitor, I had some extra motivation to do so. The techniques themselves are quite powerful, but I’ve learned it’s not so obvious how to apply them to learning complicated subjects in an efficient way. It’s just about finding the right set of tweaks to eliminate the roadblocks keeping the techniques from being useful. Elucidating those approaches and giving real-world examples of how the techniques can work well is what my wife and I have been working on with our http://www.mullenmemory.com project over the last few years.
Daniel: As I’m sure you are aware, there are innumerable books on memory techniques out there. Unfortunately, almost all of them teach the same, very basic techniques with fairly artificial examples. Can you give me a real example of how you use these techniques in your medical studies?
Alex: This was a big frustration for me when I was first learning to apply the techniques. A book or video might explain, say, how to memorize a 10-item list using a memory palace, and from there you’re basically on your own. But there must be more tips for structuring palaces, reviewing, and making good images, right? That’s essentially what we’re trying to explore with Mullen Memory, to give some answers to those questions.
Personally, I’m using a memory palace just about any time I’m trying to learn something for the long term, especially if the topic is information-heavy. For example, take the class IA antiarrhythmic drugs. I might start in the garage of a house along one of my usual driving routes. There I place the drug names: a golf cart—for quinidine, hard to explain that one—with a pro golfer’s club—for procainamide—in the back. On the far side are two stacked pyramids—for disopyramide. In the driveway, I imagine a kid falling off a skateboard to the right, which mimics the change in shape of the action potential. Then I imagine the basketball goal’s hoop is spinning, to signal that these drugs are often used for re-entrant or ectopic arrhythmias.
At every stage of this process, I’m doing my best to think about how the drugs actually work and justify their features logically. The images I just gave you are mainly just things I found unintuitive and difficult to remember.
Daniel: What does your current training schedule look like? What are your current competition and training goals?
Alex: Since this summer’s Extreme Memory Tournament and US Open, my training schedule has been pretty low-key. I generally try to keep it to less than 30 minutes per day. With the Memoriad coming up, I’m starting to pick things up again and do some longer events. Right now I’m focusing on getting ready for Memoriad. I’ve never been and would love to do well there. Beyond that I don’t have any definite plans. Day to day I’m usually working on breaking whichever personal best just happens to be most exciting in the moment.
Daniel: What habits, techniques or routines do you use to maintain your motivation and stay disciplined? Do you know where and when you developed these techniques? Was it only after you became a memory athlete or have you always been driven?
Alex: Much of my motivation to train memory competitively stems from the challenge of it. It’s fun to see your times drop and to push yourself to do things you previously thought weren’t possible. It’s almost like an addictive video game. You just want to keep driving up your high score. I also like that it serves as a kind of cross-training for using the techniques for learning.
But I think I have always been a pretty disciplined person, for some things more so than others. Like I said, I try to maintain a relatively low daily load to minimize burnout and maintain consistency. I try to spread different events throughout the week so there’s always some variety.
Daniel: Do you have any particularly memorable stories from your time as a memory athlete?
Alex: My first competition, the 2014 USA Memory Championship, really sticks in my mind. I remember just being thrilled during the recall of the first event, names, that I was actually remembering anything. I recalled the very first name and felt a sigh of relief that the techniques were still working and I hadn’t had some kind of mental meltdown. And meeting all the well-known competitors of the time, people I had read about all the past year, was a pretty surreal feeling. The 2015 World Championship was also really memorable. I got to meet so many people from all over the world, which was very cool. I even got to carry the US flag during the opening ceremony, although mainly because most of my teammates had ducked out to go see the pandas, which are seriously cute, in fairness.
Daniel: Is there anything you wish more people knew about the art of memory? Or perhaps wish the competitive community talked about more?
Alex: I’d be happy if more people knew what the art of memory was, period. Despite a fair amount of publicity, it’s still unknown to the average person. In the terms of the competitive community, I’d like to see more of a push in the direction of shorter, more audience-friendly events. The Extreme Memory Tournament has started a great precedent for that, but it’s still just one competition each year, so it’d be great to have more. Online challenges and events seem to be just starting to pick up steam, which I like. I’d like to see more interesting team events too. Right now, the only team thing is that the top three individual scores from each country are added together to get a team score. I think some actual team events—we even saw one at the XMT this year—could be really fun. Anything to make the sport more exciting!