Alex Mullen, World Memory Champion

This article was originally printed in Issue 427 (January/February) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

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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!

 

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From The Archives: Memory for Buisness Leaders

This article was originally published in issue 17 of Acuity magazine and can be found in its original form here. In this brief interview, I discuss the value of memory techniques in a buisness setting.


Remember to think

01 December 2015 – Aaron Watson

Daniel Kilov is a “memory athlete” who teaches mnemonics to help business leaders get the best out of their brains.

1. What is mnemonics and why did you learn it?

I became interested in memory techniques in 2011 as a way of improving my grades at university. To help me, I sought out Tansel Ali, the Australian Memory Champion. After six weeks of training, I entered the Australian Memory Championships and set a national record, securing second place overall. I was also the silver medallist in 2012 and broke my own record for the memorisation of abstract images.

The mnemonic techniques memory athletes use are more than 2,000 years old and are known collectively as the “Art of Memory”. These techniques originated in Ancient Greece and were used to memorise poems and speeches. Today, these same techniques are used by memory athletes in the World Memory Championships and associated national competitions to perform some astonishing feats of high speed learning. For instance, the world record for memorising a shuffled deck of cards is 21.9 seconds.

2. A good party trick, but how will that help me in my career?

I believe we are all mental athletes. In a competitive world, we all need to be able to remember more, to be more creative, innovative and focused.

I’m particularly interested in the practical applications of these techniques – after all, I was looking for a way to improve my study techniques. I went from average to 1st class honours student and now I’m undertaking a PhD. In this sense, the techniques used by memory athletes should be available to everyone.

That said, some “party tricks” are also very useful in a career setting. It’s easy to be stand out (ie be memorable) when you can memorise the names of everyone in a meeting room in a minute or two and repeat their names back to them.

3. Can anybody, even those with poor memory, learn it?

Anybody can learn these techniques. I’ve had students from all educational levels, age groups etc. I’ve never met anybody who can’t significantly improve their memory after a very short time.

4. How long does it take to develop basic skills?

One of the great things about these skills is that they can be learned fairly quickly. As I mentioned, it was only six weeks after I first began learning these techniques that I entered the Australian Memory Championships. My private coaching course consists of only ten lessons of about an hour each. Many of my students have gone on from this course to compete successfully in the Australian Memory Championships.

5. Are there other techniques of “mental athletics” that you advise businesspeople to investigate?

Being a mental athlete is just like being a regular athlete. Top performance requires that, in addition to the specialised training of memory skills, we manage our sleep, eat the right foods and do enough cardiovascular exercise. People often neglect these things when thinking about brain health but these things really are very important.

Interested in improving your memory? danielkilov.com

Decoding Genius With Lily Serna

Is it provenance or practice that makes for prodigies?

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Lily Serna for her new podcast, Decoding Genius. In this episode, I discuss the role of deliberate practice in producing world class performance, and the role of memory techniques in bending the 10,000 hour rule.

More information on this episode and others can be found here.

2016 Australian Memory Championships

This weekend past I participated in my 3rd memory competition, the 2016 Australian Memory Championships.

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Competitors at the 2016 AMC

The field was incredibly strong this year. I had a disastrous first few events and by lunchtime of the first day I was barely holding on to 5th place. However, I managed to rally and eventually secured 2nd place in the competition.

I’m disappointed that I couldn’t secure the win but am also thrilled at the high standard of the Australian competitive scene this year. My hope is that this event marks the beginning of a new era of memory sports in this country.

I’d like to congratulate Anastasia Woolmer on becoming the first ever female Australian memory champion. I’d also like to congratulate my training partner, Zeshaan Khokhar, for becoming the third ever Australian to memorize a deck in under 2 minutes, thereby completing the first of 3 requirements for the title of International Master of Memory.

For the uninitiated, this competition sees athletes come together from across the country to compete in the following 10 events:

  1. Names and Faces
  2. Binary Numbers
  3. Random Numbers
  4. Abstract Images
  5. Speed Numbers
  6. Historic / Future Dates
  7. Playing Cards
  8. Random Words
  9. Spoken Numbers
  10. Speed Cards

The standards are incredibly exacting and in many cases a single error can cost you an entire event. In order to be successful, athletes have to memorize quickly, but also with near perfect accuracy.

From the outside, these competitions look a lot like a university exam, with the competitors staring in absolute silence at desks covered with intimidating sheets of paper. But the techniques themselves are fun and the competitors are all incredibly friendly. It’s a wonderful sport and a community I’m proud to be a part of. I’ll definitely be back next year.

Life as a memory athlete

Fellow mental athletes,

Here is my interview from an ABC digital radio program called ‘It’s Just Not Cricket’ that aired last weekend. The host is Glynn Greensmith.

For reasons still mysterious, I mention on the program that the Art of Memory is “over 500 years old and originated in Ancient Greece”. I had meant to say that the techniques were over 2500 years old.

My silly error aside, I had a lot of fun and the host even had a go at memorizing a list of 10 random words at the end of the interview.

Memory and the limits of technology

The advent of the internet and the maturation of social media mean that we are more connected than ever before. The writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote about six degrees of separation in 1929, but new research by Facebook suggests that number is closer to 3.57. That means everyone or at least everyone on social media, is connected to everyone else by an average of three and a half people.

The greater number of ‘voices’ in the crowd means we must find new ways to stand out; we must become better at communicating in creative and memorable ways. And navigating an ever-expanding number of relationships requires us to learn and remember ever more information.

The technology ‘lock-in’

New technologies often require new decisions—ones that can force us down paths that become impossible to escape. A powerful example: the dimensions of railroad tracks. The London rail system was initially designed to have narrow tracks and matching tunnels. Nowadays these tunnels cannot accommodate air-conditioning since there is no room to ventilate hot air from the trains. Consequently, residents of one of the world’s wealthiest cities have to endure stifling trains because of a design decision made over a century ago.

The digital technology situation is often worse; interdependencies and interconnections grow at exponential rates, resulting in technological ‘lock in’. The technologies which created these challenges cannot, in principle, provide adequate solutions. Solutions to these new relationship challenges must thus come from different quarters.

The art of memory

Every year, men and women from around the world assemble to compete at the World Memory Championships. These ‘mental athletes’ compete to see who can memorize the largest volume of information in the shortest time. The best among them perform astonishing feats of high-speed learning. One world record involved memorizing a list of 125 random words, in order, in five minutes. Another athlete memorized the order of 1800 digits in 30 minutes. These athletes were not born with their abilities. Rather, they employ a small set of mnemonic techniques that can be easily learned and applied to any subject.

The techniques used by these remarkable individuals originated over 2,500 years ago. They are known as the ‘Art of Memory’ and leverage the fact that we learn some things more easily than others. For instance, you are probably able to visualize a route through your own home. You may even be able to mentally revisit a place you grew up in but haven’t been back to in ten years—and all this in spite of the fact that you never made a deliberate effort to learn these locations.

Encoding information visually and spatially is a useful skill. For instance, to remember that the French word for horse is cheval, you might visualize a horse digging a hole with a shovel and mentally place this image outside your front door. Other images could be put in other rooms and subsequently recalled by mentally wandering back through your home. This technique, known as the ‘Memory Palace’, was used by the Malaysian memory champion, Dr Yip Swee Chooi to memorize a 1774 page Chinese-English dictionary.

Standing out from the crowd

The same principles which can support our own learning can be put to work in making our own messages maximally memorable—to make them stand out. Do you remember the French word for horse? Do you think you’d be able to recall it so easily if you’d simply been told what it was? In doing so, they are capitalizing on a principle known in psychology as the Van Restorff Effect, which predicts that items which “stand out from the crowd” are more likely to be remembered. Being an effective memorizer then, requires the ability to generate new and interesting ideas.

The benefits of memory training go beyond the improvements in recall. There are many metaphors for how memory might work. People often think of it as a filing cabinet, or a library or computer database. Memory, however, involves a lot more than storage and retrieval; it’s a cutting-edge laboratory.

It’s where we make new discoveries and where the alchemy of coming up with new ideas takes place. This process is rarely methodical. It isn’t simply looking up bits of data. It’s about spotting associations between seemingly disparate ideas to generate novel insights. And like any laboratory, your memory needs materials to work with. Enriching your memories with the aid of memory techniques means that you’ll have the resources to generate new ideas and stay ahead of the competition. For these purposes, our digital memory/recording devices are still woefully inadequate.

Memory and relationships

These techniques can also help us keep track of our personal and professional relationships. Many of us struggle, unaided, to remember people’s names. Memory athletes, however, can learn hundreds of new names and faces in minutes. Here again, the secret is to create visual associations. To remember that somebody’s name is James, try picturing yourself wrapping chains around their head. ‘Chains’ sounds enough like James to work as a mnemonic, but the key is to make it visual, to make it memorable.

The world is changing at an ever accelerating pace. We need to keep up with all the new information and with all the new people. The solution will not come from current technologies. It will come instead from a shift in thinking, from learning to think like a memory athlete—by using the art of memory.

This article was originally published here under the title ‘The Art of Memory’

Finding Focus

“…whether the attention come by grace of genius or dint of will, the longer one does attend to a topic the more mastery of it one has. And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. […] And education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.” (William James : Writings 1878-1899)

Anyone who has followed my blog for any length of time knows that I wasn’t born with my memory. I built it. I’ve written a lot about the techniques that have allowed me to do this, and the fascinating history of the art of memory. There is, however, another part of this story, ever-present but not made explicit in my writing. Until today.

The catalyst for this post was my inclusion as a case study in Cal Newport’s new book, Deep WorkCal Newport is an MIT graduate and Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. In addition to his academic work, Newport studies and deconstructs the habits and processes of high performers. His latest book argues that focus is the secret to success in the knowledge age. As he writes,

‘Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time… In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy’.

The capacity to regulate one’s attention is a theme present in all of my writing and talks. Usually I talk in terms of mindfulness; that is, learning to be aware of what it feels like to be paying attention so that you can become better at recognizing when you aren’t. This, in turn, allows you direct your focus back to the desired object.

When I was younger, I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Regardless of whether or not that diagnosis was appropriate, I’ve spent most of my life on the wrong end of the bell-curve of attentional control. Since 2011, I’ve worked deliberately and systematically to improve my focus. Here, I’ll share the three exercises I found most effective in moving me from a struggling student to a worthy example of a deep worker. These are samatha meditation, dual N-back and training for memory competition.

Samatha meditation

I was first exposed to meditation at the end of 2011, when I undertook an international academic exchange program at the Central University of Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, India. I was studying Buddhist philosophy and from this I gained a deep appreciation for the rigorous, analytic foundations of Buddhist psychology. In addition to our regular classes we were offered the chance to participate in meditation classes. I didn’t go to many of them (they were very early in the morning) but it sparked an interested that continued to grow after I came back and observed the flowering of empirical research the benefits of meditation.

Meditation encapsulates an extremely broad range of activities, as diverse as those captured under the term ‘exercise’. Consequently, meditative practices can be as different to one another in their nature and aims as ping-pong is to wrestling. The particular practice I became interested in is called ‘samatha’. The principle goal of samatha is to cultivate a single-pointedness of focus. Although it is practiced predominantly by Buddhists, samatha actually predates Buddhism and is an entirely secular practice. It’s been the subject of one of the largest studies of the effects of meditation to date and has been found to significantly increase duration and intensity of focus.

When I first started, I would struggle to meditate for more than five minutes at a time. Today, I sit for at least twenty minutes every day. Anyone looking to learn this technique themselves should check out Dr Alan Wallace’s book, The Attention Revolution.

Dual N-back

The second technique in my armamentarium against distractibility is dual N-back. I first heard about it in a WIRED magazine article, which suggested it could increase IQ and working memory (WM), which is a cognitive capacity crucial to executive function and attentional control. Subsequent research hasn’t always been able to replicate the IQ results but we can now be fairly confident that WM can be trained (See here and here, for example).

Dual N-back is fairly simple but quickly becomes incredibly difficult. The task involves remembering a sequence of spoken letters and positions of a square on a grid and identifying when a letter or position matches the one that appeared n trials earlier. I’ve never been able to make a regular habit of N-back training, it’s just too hard. I have, however, done three weeks of daily sessions (as per the original study) several times since 2011. Anyone looking to try this can download a free version of the dual-N-back task, here.

The Art of Memory

The final activity that I believe has contributed to my capacity for the kind of sustained, intense focus required for deep work is training in the Art of Memory. Indeed, this is Cal’s preferred hypothesis. As he writes in Deep Work:

“One explanation for this transformation comes from research led by Henry Roediger, who runs the Memory Lab at the University of Washington in Saint Louis. In 2014, Roediger and his collaborators sent a team, equipped with a battery of cognitive tests, to the Extreme Memory Tournament held in San Diego. They wanted to understand what differentiated these elite memorizers from the population at large. “We found that one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory at all but of attention,” explained Roediger in a New York Times blog post (emphasis mine). The ability in question is called “attentional control,” and it measures the subjects’ ability to maintain their focus on essential information.

The capacity for sustained and intense focus is an essential part of memory training. Here is a simple example: Consider the most common coin in your country. It’s likely that there is a person’s face on one side of this coin. Which way is this person facing, to the left or to the right? Offering an answer is easy, but are you sure? I’ve asked many audiences this question and I generally get a 50/50 split which, of course, indicates that almost everyone is guessing. Even though you’ve seen that coin hundreds, maybe thousands of times over the course of your life, you likely do not remember which way the bust faces. This is because it does not matter how many times we see something, if we aren’t paying attention, we simply will not remember it. In the inimitable words of Sherlock Holmes, those of us unable to rally our attentional resources at will “see but do not observe” and that makes all the difference.

I’m a big fan of Cal’s work. I’ve read all his books and regularly recommend two of them[1] to my friends and students. Being included in his latest book is an honour. It represents a personal victory for me. I believe that my successes can replicated by anyone else willing to sit down, stick with it and focus on their focus.

[1] Specifically, How to be a High School Super Star and So Good They Can’t Ignore You