TIP 025 | Memory Champion

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Alex Mullen, 2-time World Memory Champion, was a mild-mannered student but after picking up a book on memory tricks he challenged himself to become superhuman and develop the greatest memory of any living person. Surprisingly, this is a learned skill that anyone can master. On this episode of Influencers, discover how you can have that perfect memory you have always wanted.

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Superhuman Memory with Alex Mullen 2 Time World Memory Champion

Welcome back, listeners. For those of you who have been able to figure out who our guest is, it’s Alex Mullen. Alex, please introduce yourself.

TIP 025 | Memory Champion

I’ve won the last two of the World Memory Championships and done a couple of things in memory competition areas.

My name is Alex Mullen. I am a third year medical student at the University of Mississippi in Jackson, Mississippi. What I’m better known for is as a memory competitor in World Memory Championship. I’ve won the last two of the World Memory Championships and done a couple of things in memory competition areas. For instance, my wife and I run a website called Mullen Memory where we just try to teach how to use the memory techniques that I use for competitions for learning purposes. That could be for school exams or medical school-type things, languages, things like that. Those are the different things that I work on.

When people discover what you’ve accomplished, what do they most often ask you? 

The most common reaction is some combination of referencing Sherlock, just because a lot of people watch the British TV show Sherlock and remember the use of mind palace or memory palace in that show, so I’ll get some reference to Sherlock or some comment about going to Vegas and using memory tricks for Blackjack and things like that. Those are probably the two most common things that I get.

How much have you won in Vegas?

Unfortunately, nothing. Unfortunately, it’s this very underwhelming thing where I have to then explain to them that the memory techniques that I use, A, I haven’t really tried to apply them to top card counting or anything like that. B, they’re not particularly useful just because the standard tricks and things that people use for card counting and things like that don’t really have a whole lot of benefit for memory. It’s just more about simple arithmetic and things like that.

That’s what any really good card counter would say. I applaud you for continuing to pretend that you’re not a multi-millionaire advantage player. I have to say I forget things constantly, especially people’s names. I know that one of the things that I would love more than anything is to have this unbeatable memory. You weren’t born with an eidetic or photographic memory, were you?

No, absolutely not. I didn’t get into memory techniques or any memory related thing until I was in college and picked up the book, Moonwalking with Einstein. Just learn about this crazy world of memory techniques and things that people have been doing for thousands of years to improve their memories. These are all just normal average by-the-book people who just use this technique or memory palace or whatever you want to call it to improve their memories. I definitely didn’t have any kind of special memory going in. I’ve just practiced these techniques and started doing competitions and things. That’s how I’ve developed the skill.

How useful has it been for you from day-to-day?

It took me a little bit of time to make it useful day-to-day. The main things that I use memory techniques just generally for is material for school, learning medical school information, learning people’s names is definitely a big one like you mentioned, learning languages, that falls into school or that material type of stuff like that. Then also presentation is another good thing it can be used for, just keeping a speech presentation memorized is a pretty helpful skill.

The reason I said that is because thinking if I had a superhuman ability, in 99% of cases it would be completely useless. If I had Wolverine’s claws, it would only be used when I couldn’t find a can opener. Memory granted is something that I feel like is something I come across from day-to-day. I know that people have a really tough time remembering the names of people they just meet. Are there are few techniques that you could teach us today? I know that you have resources on your site, but something that we could really just take away.

Yeah, absolutely. Let me tackle it a little bit in two different ways. One is short-term memory and one is long-term memory. For short-term memory, let’s say you are at a dinner party and you’re meeting a lot of people and you want to get their names into your head. The standard technique that memorizers in competitions including myself use is essentially you take someone’s name and you turn it into an image. That goes for all the general memory techniques that people use. It’s taking information, bland information, and turning it into something interesting like a visual image.

Let’s say I’m meeting you, Jon, and I see your face. What I first want to do is just find something that sticks out about you to me. For you, it might be your beard, it might be your hair, anything that jumps out at me when I first see you, something that I can latch on to. Let’s just go with the beard for now. Then what you want to do is take their name and turn it into some image. Just think of an image that sounds or makes you think of that name, and then connect that distinctive feature that you came across initially with the image for the name.

For instance for Jon, maybe you think of a toilet, like a Porta-John or something like that, so a toilet for Jon and then we’ve got your beard here. I just want to make this as colorful as I can. Let’s just imagine that you are sticking your beard directly into a dirty toilet bowl and just imagine urine and poo and any nasty stuff you can think of just going all over your beard. That would be an example of an image that I would use, making it as crazy and ridiculous as possible to remember that connection. The next time I see you, I see your beard, that’s what jumps out at me about you and then I think back, “He had his beard stuck in a toilet bowl for John. That’s Jon.” Hopefully that’s clear. It sounds pretty complicated but it’s the thing that you do it a few times, you work at it, you practice, it becomes second nature. That’s the short-term way of doing it.

Alex, correct me if I’m wrong. I just looked at some research on this stuff. I think the important factors are that it’s either incredibly novel, it stands out, your response to novelty. It’s either associated with great pleasure or great pain, right?

Yeah, that can be true.

If something’s really disgusting or really painful, you’re probably more likely to remember it. The Jon example that you gave, which I don’t think I’ll ever be able to live down with all of my listeners now, stands out as really both novel, it’s different, and there’s a level of disgust or pain that’s deeply rooted in that image. Now there’s no escaping it. Your brain is going to remember.

TIP 025 | Memory Champion

You want to tie as many senses into this experience as possible.

In addition to making it very interesting either in terms of pain or pleasure from a semantic perspective, there’s also this sensory thing that you want to do. You want to tie as many senses into this experience as possible. You were talking about synesthesia and how they tend to be good at memorizing things because they have this combining of senses. When I want to memorize something, let’s say it’s Jon and the toilet bowl, I want to use as many senses as possible in that so I’m smelling the crap, I’m feeling the liquid in the toilet bowl and the beard, and just obviously seeing it visually also. You want to tie as many senses in there also in addition to this narrative component. That all works together to make something that’s very sticky in terms of your memory. That’s what makes it stick in the mind. Hopefully, that makes sense.

The other thing that I tend to do personally, I’m not totally sure if lots of memorizers do this or not, is to get things into long-term memory. That usually means that I have to review it a few times. That’s just what I found works for me. I can make pretty strong images and sometimes they’ll last but sometimes they still just fade away. That’s just how human memory works. What I’ll do is usually at the end of the day when I meet someone, I’ll just jot down their name somewhere like in a Word document or something, and then just revisit it a few times a week later or a couple of weeks later. That really helps it also stick really well long-term to the point where I see someone six months, a year later and I can still remember the name. That review process is really what makes it stick in the long-term for me.

If our listeners are at a party and they’re trying to remember everybody’s name. They meet ten people. They have ten of these visuals that they create with many additional senses as possible. They have a large factor of novelty and disgust or whatever it is that really works to have their brains remember it. At the end of the night or the next day, do you review everybody you’ve met? How do you do it?

Yeah, basically. This is just my personal way of doing it. What I do is I have a little reminder every night to just jot down any names of new people that I’ve met that day. Pretty much nine out of ten times I usually don’t write anything down just because I’m at work or school or whatever and just seeing the people over and over. If I know that I’ve met someone new that day, I’ll just add their name to a document that has a running list of names that I’ve met.

I just want to give the listeners something that they can actually do because this is something that I personally struggle with a lot. Alex, so far we’ve explored essentially a party trick, remembering people’s names. You’re in med school right now, is that right?

Yeah, I’m on my third year in med school.

I commend you because I don’t think that would be for me. My hunch is there’s a lot of memorization that takes place.

For sure, yeah. Almost all of it is memorization.

Do you feel like you have a significant advantage to your classmates as a result?

I don’t know if I’d say it’s super significant but just because everybody in med school works hard so everyone knows a lot of stuff. I do think that being able to use memory techniques efficiently for learning med school information helps in terms of keeping information more long-term. Lots of people just cram and they learn a lot of things for the test and then they tend to forget it three, four, five months later. I think it helps in terms of maintaining information more long-term. I think it also helps to minimize the amount of time that you spend learning information. You don’ have to look at it ten times leading up to a particular test.

Is there anything that you want to actually talk about or share that I don’t even know would be fun to know?

This is just more of a general comment, but what I tend to find memory technique is most useful for in med school is basically that information that is least intuitive. You’d find memory techniques to be helpful. That could be like pharmacology, so memorizing information about different drugs, so often the side effects of different drugs.

Obviously, remembering where I left the keys is nice, but there are probably some pretty profound uses for a skill set like yours. Where do you really find that it applies the best?

I personally think it’s more useful for educational applications than it is for day-to-day stuff like remembering your keys. I try not to plug it as a way of you’ll never forget your keys or you’ll never forget if you left the stove on because that’s not really what I use it for. I tend to use it mainly for learning information for med school. I think that’s really where the application is. If you’re a student in high school or even middle school or college or med school or whatever, if you have some kind of material that is icky to learn just because it requires a lot of memorization and it doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of intuitive sense, then that’s the time when a memory technique or memory palace could  be very helpful in terms of minimizing the amount of time it takes you to learn the information, and hopefully maximizes the amount of time that you retain the information. That’s really where I see the application is in learning educational subjects. That could apply to languages and things like that too.

You’ve mentioned memory palace a few times especially because of Sherlock. What is that?

Memory palace is basically just a place that you can imagine in your mind’s eye. It could be the house you grow up in, the house you live in now, it could be the place that you work, it could be the route that you take from home to work or to school every day. It’s just a physical location that you imagine. What you would do is you take the information you want to learn and imagine it as mental images that you can sprinkle throughout this memory palace. Then what you do is you just mentally move through the palace and then you can see, “Here’s this image representing this information. Here is that image.” You just walk through it and that’s an easy way for you to recall the information in order. Hopefully that makes some sense.

I’ll have the listeners actually run through this exercise. I want you to remember your childhood bedroom. As you imagine your childhood bedroom, when you walk in through the door, I want you to think if there are any pictures on the wall on your right side or any shelves or desk or whatever it is. I want you to go and look all around the room and pick five items that you would never forget about your childhood bedroom. Each of those items, let’s say it’s a painting on the wall or your work desk for homework, you could store an image or an idea there. Let’s say you have to go shopping and you need to buy a few items. If it’s the painting, you could remember throwing the tomatoes at the painting and the tomatoes are dripping  down and it’s making a mess and maybe there are flies and bugs because it’s going bad. At the desk, you have to buy peanut butter and so there’s a giant peanut man doing homework, making a peanut butter sandwich, everything is dripping everywhere. Now you have these five locations that you’ll never forget because they’re your childhood room, then you can store whatever you want in them. 

Alex, I’m assuming your memory palace isn’t just five items in a room. I’m assuming yours is legitimately a palace with thousands of locations that you can store things.

Yeah, that’s closer to the truth.

This is a really efficient way to store a list when you don’t have a piece of paper or if you need to remember the bones of the body or something.

TIP 025 | Memory Champion

I’ll imagine a couple of images to represent the side effects.

The bottom line is if I were using this example for a medical example, let’s say I’m learning something about a drug. I might put some of the side effects on to that painting. I’ll imagine a couple of images to represent the side effects. I’ll put them on the painting that you’re talking about. Maybe the mechanism of the drug I’ll imagine as some image and put that at the desk, etc. I’ll just take the information that’s hard to remember normally and then imagine it as some visual at these different places in the room. That’s essentially the way that the technique works.

I can also see how incredibly useful it is. I have a memory palace for my home and then I have a second one for my body. When I have to grab lists and I’m traveling through a foreign country and my phone isn’t working or something like that, I just tack everything on to my body so I don’t forget anything. It’s super convenient. I’m assuming a lot of people ask you to do party tricks. Is that right? Like memorize a deck of cards.

Yeah, fairly often.

Is that super annoying or do you enjoy showing off?

It’s a little bit of both. I think part of me, the show-off part of me likes it but it can get a little bit repetitive.

Is there a book or material or website that you recommend the listeners check out if they really want to develop one of these perfect memories like you have?

Yeah. The way that I got into this whole world of memory techniques was reading the book Moonwalking with Einstein or there is a TED Talk by the author Joshua Foer where he summarizes the basic ideas of the book if you don’t want to go too in-depth right away. That’s certainly a good place to start if you want to just learn the basics and just do it exactly the way I did it to learn about this whole world. Then a little personal plug, if you’re still interested in using techniques for school or things like that to study, my wife and I run a website called MullenMemory.com where we try to do what I said, which is basically teach how to use memory techniques for actual practical things like school material, languages, things like that. It took us a little bit of time to adapt the techniques that I used in competitions for school things in a way that was actually helpful and efficient. We try to share some of the things that we’ve discovered and found, and tips on that website.

I found it incredibly helpful for language. I’ve been learning Spanish. I don’t have your skill level, but if it wasn’t for mnemonics, visuals, memory palaces, all these different techniques, I would be way, way, way behind on my language.

Certainly language learning is a prime example of where memory techniques can be helpful because 99% of the time, the new foreign word that you want to learn is just something totally random essentially. It’s really the kind of thing that’s perfect for memory techniques, so that’s certainly helpful.

Let’s switch gears a little. I’d like to find out a bit more about you. You obviously went into a very honorable career, healing people. What inspired you to go there?

It’s not super interesting of a story but it’s just the place that I ended up after trying different things. Growing up I was always interested in science and math and I just assumed pretty much since I was young that I was going to do something in that area. When I was in college, I majored in Biomedical Engineering and went into college thinking maybe med school but also just thinking maybe I’ll just do some graduate degree either in engineering or some basic science. Eventually, I just decided that I didn’t really like research a whole lot, so that made the prospect of doing grad school pretty unappealing. I like the fact that in medicine, you get to practice science for sure but you also get a personal component with it, and you get a direct satisfaction of helping someone out that you don’t get with research.

The way that I look at it was certainly in research, you could build a device that helps tens of thousands of people. At the end of the day you don’t really get a whole lot of direct satisfaction from that. At least that’s the way that I look at it. I like the fact that you can do something directly for someone and literally just say to yourself, “Because of this thing that I did, X person has improved their life in some way.” It’s a little bit of a selfish thing but that’s the drive that I felt was important for me. That’s what pushed me towards medicine. Just hanging out around doctors doing some shadowing and things like that helped convinced me that it was the right thing for me. That’s really the short story of how I ended up at med school.

We often ask our guests to share a human secret; something that they feel comfortable sharing with the audience to show that we’re all really quite the same. Some people shared to us a super embarrassing story. We recently had Quddus from TRL shared that he once peed himself during a recording with Justin Timberlake. I was cringing the entire time he told the story. Other people shared that they suffer from anxiety and depression. I’d love to either hear a story of yours or if there is something you’d feel comfortable sharing. 

I had the good fortune of being invited to be on this Chinese game show. This is basically a reality TV show where you, in my case, did a memory challenge against a Chinese memorizer, someone who I know from competitions. It’s a really big show and I knew that but going in I didn’t really know quite how big it was. While I was there basically right before I had to go on, I learned that it was A, the biggest show in China, and B, it was watched by 400 million people in one season. Basically, the only reason I say that is because they basically told me that right before I was about to go on. I was just thinking to myself, “What the hell am I doing here?” I was just like, “It’s not a big deal.” I had this intro thing that I was supposed to say to the host of the show in Chinese. Chinese is one of the languages that I’m working on, so I decided to do a little chunk in Chinese. I was like, “It’s not very long. I don’t need to actually use any memory technique or whatever to memorize it. I’ll just do it. It’s fine. This is my skill. This memorizing thing is what I’m known for.” I literally go out there and he asked me the first question and I think I did that right. Then literally into my second or third sentence, I just totally forgot what I was going to say.

TIP 025 | Memory Champion

I’m still forgetting things constantly, is my point.

I’m this memory guy who comes out in front of essentially 400 million Chinese people just completely forgetting what I was going to say. I was hoping they would cut it out of the show but if you watch it they have this sound effect as I’m forgetting it. That was pretty embarrassing. I know that’s not exactly a relatable story but just because it’s being on a TV show, which is certainly not a normal thing for me. I was very lucky to have that opportunity. I’m still forgetting things constantly, is my point. I often forget my keys. I leave the stove on. I leave the fridge open. Hopefully that gives some sense of how bad my actual memory is.

First of all, thanks for sharing that. I can only imagine how embarrassing it must have been. Did you defeat this guy?

Luckily I did, so I redeemed myself there after that poor start.

If you could be any comic book hero, who would you be?

I’m not really a huge comic fan, but I will go ahead and say Spider-Man. It follows my story a little bit in the sense that this guy, Peter Parker, is this pretty normal person and then he gets bitten by this radioactive spider and develops this crazy skill. I guess you could compare that to my life. I would definitely rather be Spider-Man than be who I am right now, in the sense that I certainly had a very average memory growing up and then I basically found out about these techniques and was able to practice it and get a whole lot better at memory. It’s similar in that sense. I do like the whole Spider-Man narrative, so I guess I would say Spider-Man.

Just so you know, I think Spiderman would rather be you. 

I don’t know about that. He has a lot to deal with. He’s got a lot more responsibility than I have.

He is in the worst situation possible. Both of his parents died. He is raised by his aunt. His uncle is dead because he didn’t take action. He is picked on at school. He can’t use any of his powers to defend himself. Every time he thinks something’s about to go right, the entire world around him falls apart. I think he’d much rather be a med student who’s happily married and a World Memory champion twice over, is that right?

Yeah, that’s right.

Last question: If you could meet anyone, imagine you go out to dinner with three people, who would they be? They must be living.

For me, the first thing that just popped into my head, are my favorite authors. Besides Jon, obviously, the two authors that I think are Atul Gawande who has written a couple of books about medicine that I’ve enjoyed a lot. He’s written most recently Being Mortal, also a book called Better, a book called Complications, a book called The Checklist Manifesto. He’s just probably my favorite writer in terms of reading about medical things. That certainly makes him someone that I’d want to talk to and have dinner with. He’s someone who I think of pretty quickly. Another one is Tim Ferriss just because I’m a big fan of his podcast and his books also. For some reasons, his name just jumped into my mind given that they have to be living people. Another one that jumps to mind is either Christopher Nolan or David Fincher just because I like a lot of their movies, Christopher Nolan especially. I like a lot of his stuff and so he’s someone who I think of pretty quickly. I’ll just leave it at that and if I think of another one I’ll try and add it to the list.

Alex, that was absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much for participating. Thank you for giving us so much material that the listeners could really apply to improve their memory. If people want to find out more, can they find you on Twitter, Instagram and so on?

Yeah. The website that I mentioned is MullenMemory.com. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter @MullenMemory. My personal Twitter is @Alex_J_Mullen. That’s one place to find me for sure. I think that’s it. Thanks so much for having me on the show. I appreciate it.

It’s my pleasure. Listeners, stay tuned because next is the anonymous interview.

About Alex Mullen

TIP 025 | Memory ChampionAlex Mullen graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2014 with degrees in Biomedical Engineering and Applied Mathematics and Statistics. He is a third-year medical student at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine. Alex is the 2015 & 2016 world memory champion—the first American to win the title—and the highest point scorer in the 25-year history of the competition. Holder of ten memory world records, he is the top-ranked memory athlete in the world.

Alex is also the 2016 USA Memory Champion. His favorite events are cards and numbers. He can memorize the order of a deck in under 20 seconds, 30+ decks in an hour, and 3,000+ digits in an hour. When not learning medicine or memorizing cards, Alex is probably walking the dog or eating guac with friends.

Anonymous Guest Interview

Now, for my favorite part of every episode: the anonymous interview. Today, we have the pleasure of having Ulf with us. Ulf, welcome.

Thank you so much. How are you?

I’m amazing. I’m really excited to have you here. I want to give the listeners a few hints about who you are to see if they could figure it out. Let’s start off with the basics. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Where do you currently live? Do you still live in Gothenburg?

I moved away in 1992. I lived abroad. I was in New York. I’ve been in New York twice in my life actually. I’ve lived there first for three years and then five years. I was in London twice also. The last time I was there for ten years between 2000 and 2010. I was in Paris for two years also. I’m back in Sweden since 2010.

That’s quite a bit of international travel. Was there a certain incident or a teacher or something that inspired you to go down the path that you’re probably most well-known for?

Not really a teacher. I had a band that inspired me a lot. I had a father who inspired me a lot.

What was the band?

The band was called Kraftwerk, a German band, invented the electronic music in the 70s.

That was really a large part of your impetus to go into music, is that right?

Absolutely. The combination, I actually worked with computers and music. That inspired me very early on, 1981 when I was eleven years old.

Was there a certain accomplishment in your career that you’re most proud of?

I think to be able to go from a quite simple background and make it out of Sweden and especially to accomplish quite great success in the US is probably one part of my successes which I’m most proud of.

I like how you understate this. How many hits did you guys have over the years? I can count several off the top of my head.

It depends a little bit of what country you’re counting from but in average in most countries there’s about fifteen of them.

Just to help the listeners get a sense of what you look like, who do you think would play you in a movie? I don’t know if somebody has played you in a movie but who would?

People have compared me to an actor but he will probably rather play me when I’m much older because he is much older than me. He’s Jeff Bridges. I will say probably I look like him when he was young, because I’m a bit younger than him.

I would say so too. I often ask my guests is there a song that most represents their life. Besides one of yours, is there a song that you find a lot of meaning in or that represents your journey in some way?

I think the whole career of Michael Jackson has inspired me a lot. It’s very hard to pick just one song from him. I think most of his biggest hits have inspired me, if I have to choose one artist.

What I find most interesting about your career is how you’ve achieved a level of mastery across multiple different industries. It’s relatively unheard of and also wasn’t a very popular approach when you were coming up in the music industry. Correct me if I’m wrong, nowadays, you have music artists that own basketball teams. At the time, that level of diversification didn’t really exist and yet you’ve managed to have a career as an investor, as a technologist, as a musician. Was there a certain moment that really made you feel you had arrived to some degree? I know none of us truly arrive ever, but that you were playing in the big leagues.

TIP 025 | Memory Champion

That really inspired me to work with music and computers and technology.

I had a dream. When I was eleven, when I got really hooked on Kraftwerk and they had this album called Computer World. They were singing about computers, how the world will be connected by computers, everybody will have a computer, everything will be based on computers. That really inspired me to work with music and computers and technology. When I achieved my music part of it, years in computers, that was two-thirds of that. Then I got very, very hooked on different technologies that were introduced, especially in the Apple world in the end of the 80s, early 90s. I started to invest. I started companies. I introduced my first website in 1994, which was my band’s website and it became pretty big. We had 1.7 million hits the first month, which was equivalent to around 10% of the whole internet at the time. That was a pretty interesting beginning of the journey.

What year was this?

1994.

That’s an incredible amount by today’s standards. In 1994, there were like five people on the internet.

I think we’ve calculated, it was 10% of everyone using the internet that found our website. I think there were a few reasons to that. We had a lot of tech-savvy people loving our music and also there were not that many bands on internet. I think we were number three ever, so we didn’t have much competition either.

Last question, what hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are?

There are not that many Swedish bands that really have made it in the States. I will say the band name is a little bit playing around with the words. I wouldn’t say much more than that.

I think they have plenty to go on. Ulf, thank you so much. Listeners, good luck figuring out who Ulf is. I hope your guesses are good because if they are, you could win an invitation to The Salon by Influencers.