Interviews

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!

 

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.

Smart drugs I The Feed Forum feat. Daniel Kilov

Should we take a drug that improves our memory, makes us more alert, or actually smarter? Australian researchers are trying to find out just how many students and workers are using prescription ADHD pills, sleep drugs and beta blockers for purposes other than prescribed.

Meet a young professional who faked ADHD symptoms to get a Ritalin prescription (and, she says, two promotions), a philosopher who once took narcolepsy drugs, a former Mr Universe who admits to steroid use, and a “mental athlete” who hated the ADD prescription he was forced to take as a teen but now sees enormous potential in the drugs.

Tansel Ali: Memory champion and human phone book

This article was originally printed in Issue 417 (May/June) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

tansel-photo Tansel Ali is Australia’s most successful memory athlete. He is three-time Australian memory champion and holds a handful of Australian records. He is also the author of The Yellow Elephant and is famous for having memorised 2 Yellow Pages phone books in only 24 days. His work has been featured on a variety of media including the award-winning ABC TV documentary ‘Redesign My Brain’ with Todd Sampson. Tansel is also a dear friend and coach – It was he who first taught me the techniques I used in the 2011 Australian Memory Championships. I caught up with him recently at the Creativity and Innovation Conference in Melbourne and scheduled an interview. Fortunately, we remembered.

Daniel Kilov: Aside from being the 3x Australian Memory Champion, you are probably best known for memorizing the entire Sydney Yellow Pages in only three weeks. How did this opportunity come about? How did you learn such a huge volume in such a short time?

Tansel Ali: A PR company contacted me wanting me to memorise the Yellow Pages as marketing for their display advertising. Initially I thought it was a crazy idea, however after some basic calculations I decided I could be up for the challenge. Once I accepted to do the memory feat I was informed that I only had 24 days to memorise everything. After 24 days I was flown to Sydney and tested at a large convention as well as several live TV and radio interviews. In order to learn such a huge volume in the time that I had, I had to develop a thorough plan and analysis of the feat. This included finding out how many ads to memorise, which techniques to use, duration of memorisation, the number of times for review, recall period, as well as the type of sacrifices I had to make like taking time off work, finding quiet memorisation spots, and so on. Once the plan was developed then I had to make sure I executed it accordingly.

Daniel Kilov: The title of your first book on memory, The Yellow Elephant is definitely evocative of the Yellow Pages. Is there a link there?

Tansel Ali: The yellow represents the yellow from the Yellow Pages and elephant symbolising memory. It is also the term I used to form my own memory concept, which is to take abstract data and encode it into meaningful information. By naming something that is visual, it helps the person remember the book title, rather than a bunch of words that may not make sense. It is very much like an icon. As they say, a picture is a thousand words.

Daniel Kilov: You’ve been involved in competitive memory sports for over ten years now. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the sport?

Tansel Ali: There are many more people around the world that are involved in memory sports today, and it is much more competitive. When I first started, the world championships used to have 20 odd competitors. Last year saw 169 compete in China. Records have been consistently broken and it is a lot tougher to crack the top 20 than ever before. The interest has definitely grown over the years and it will only be a matter of time until we have full-time memory athletes vying for prestigious titles and huge prize money. Not only are we seeing a growth in memory competitors, but also memory coaches training the next lot of superstars. I still find it very interesting what the human mind can do and believe we still haven’t reached anywhere near our capability in memory competitions.

Daniel Kilov: What’s been the most memorable experience of either the Australian or World Memory Championships for you?

Tansel Ali: I’ve been fortunate to have competed in a number of Australian and World memory championships since 2002. The first ever memory championship will stand in my mind the most. My friend Metin and I were so excited about our new discovery and we would train until 4am at his place, often not really remembering much and mucking around most of the time. Come competition time, we ended up breaking a number of memory records together and coming second and third in Australia. My first world memory championships were in Malaysia in 2003. Training once again with Metin we both ventured into Kuala Lumpur for the first time and had an unbelievable experience. We met our memory heroes and hung out until very late with the world’s best memorisers. I went for the experience, however found myself in 13th position overall having broken 5 Australian memory records for a total of 6.

Daniel Kilov: You’ve recently begun exploring all kinds of new uses for memory techniques outside of the competition room. What are the most surprising and successful uses you’ve found for your memory techniques?

Tansel Ali: Memory techniques are extremely versatile. The more you delve into it, the more you learn from it, the more you can play with it to suit your lifestyle. Initially my interest was using memory for enhancing learning. Speed reading, which is also in the class of memory techniques, was a revelation for me as I was never a big reader and it gave me the confidence and ability to read like I’ve never been able to before. As I read more, I discovered that memorisation is a type of narrative visualisation. You make up stories with your imagination. The same can be used for meditation. Hence, memorisation can be used as a meditative tool. I’ve used it to manage extreme pain and things like stress. If you can visualise well and have a great imagination, then I believe you can untap amazing potential in yourself, and others as well. Getting your own visualisation out externally into the real world can also be called a ‘vision’. If you are good at memory, then you will have the ability to understand how to communicate better with others and relay your vision. Hence, memory is a great leadership skill to have.

Daniel Kilov: In line with your call for memory techniques to be put to practical uses you’ve recently masterminded and run the first School Mind Games event. Could you tell us a little about what this event involved? What are your plans for this event?

Tansel Ali: Usually when seminars and training are run in schools, it’s great on the day. However as time passes, usually the next day, students and teachers have forgotten the skills and generally go back to their usual ways of learning. I wanted to create something that engaged the students’ new skills throughout the year. I wanted students to not just learn memory skills, but apply them regularly so that it became strong studying habits. Along with the help of a young leader Raquel Woods, we spent almost a year planning and preparing our event. We trained three schools in memory, speed reading and Mind Mapping skills. By the end of the year, these students came together in the school mind games event and competed in the three skills they were taught. The first was to speed read a 200-page book, which they all did collectively in 15 minutes. They then created a large Mind Map on a wall of the whole book and presented that back with great detail. And finally, memorise your 11 minute TEDxManly talk almost word-for-word. It was an incredible display by everyday students. The event proved that grades do not matter and that anyone can utilise the skills and perform exceptionally. There are plans to make it even bigger this year with more schools competing. I’m looking forward to it.

From the archives: Power of the mind shines through with Daniel Kilov

Note: This article was written by Robert Kennard and was first printed in the Daily Telegraph on December 07, 2012 here. We’ve come a long way since then. We are only 14 days into 2015 and this blog has already had more views than it did in all of 2011.

Memory

MARSFIELD’S master of memory, Daniel Kilov, has broken his own record of remembering a sequence of abstract images.

Battling the minds of memory gurus from Australia, the Philippines, Japan and Hong Kong, the 24-year- old from Macquarie University memorised the sequence of 115 abstract images, topping the record of 99 he set last year.

Mr Kilov also was placed second overall at the Australian Memory Championships, which includes 10 events, from memorising shuffled decks of cards to dates, names and faces, the Northern District Times reports.

Although under pressure in his first four events after some serious errors, Mr Kilov said he focused his mind to snatch the runner-up position.

“It all came down to the last event and was very exciting and dramatic,” he said. “I am already ready to jump back in the ring and aim for the title next year.”

Convenor of the Australian Memory Championship Jennifer Goddard said that memory training is not just for mental athletes but for all Australians.

“Just as it is for our memory athletes, it’s important for everyday Aussies to ensure they have the right mix of lifestyle factors to help support brain and memory health,” she said.

The Australian Memory Championship is an event designed to showcase brain power, provide a creative outlet for memory-based activity, and offer a competitive environment for those wanting to put their memory skills to the test.