Alex Mullen decks another array of cards.
Alex Mullen decks another array of cards.
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Alex Mullen's memory, again, holds all the cards

Published on Thursday, January 25, 2018

By: Gary Pettus

Alex Mullen rarely forgets a face – especially if it’s in a deck of cards, whose random sequence he can memorize in less time than it takes to floss.

He rarely forgets a number – he has memorized more than 3,200 of them in less time than it takes to watch a third of “The Titanic.”

He rarely forgets “historical” events– even if there are more than 130 of them and they’re all phony, such as: “Monkey Lands on the Moon!” – which he has mustered in less time than it takes to unload the dishwasher.

Mullen, now a third-year medical student who was crowned the 2015 and 2016 World Memory Champion in China and Singapore, has been making even more memories ever since by appearing as a guest on national TV news and game shows, being judged by boxer Mike Tyson, starting a memory tutorial website and co-authoring a scholarly work on study tips with wife Cathy Chen, regaling interviewers from the likes of The New Yorker and The Washington Post, learning how to be a doctor, learning how to speak Chinese, walking his dog, eating guacamole with friends, and winning his third consecutive international competitive memory title by setting four world records.

“I did about as well as I could have hoped for,” said Mullen, 25, for whom, unfortunately, there is no World Understatement Championship in the offing.

The Oxford native who entered the School of Medicine in 2014, this time took his talents to the first–ever International Association of Memory (IAM) World Memory Championship, formed by organizers unhappy with the direction of the outfit whose title Mullen had captured the previous two years: the WMSC World Memory Championships, which has a foothold in China and recognizes its own champion.

Alex Mullen prepares himself for record-breaking feats of memorization before an IAM event. (Photo courtesy of Idriz Zogaj)
Mullen prepares for record-breaking feats of memorization before an IAM event. (Photo courtesy of Idriz Zogaj)

Although some of the world’s best memory athletes remained with the WMSC, Mullen saw many depart for the IAM; the card whiz followed suit. The December championship attracted 111 competitors, according to the overall results.

At any rate, during the IAM contest, held Dec. 1-3 in Indonesia, he outdid a competitor who is surely one of the toughest he has ever faced: himself. Three of the four records he broke in Jakarta’s Mercure Convention Centre Ancol were his own. Among the IAM competitors, he is now ranked No. 1 in the world.

Portrait of Jerry Clark

“We’re all so proud of Alex’s success and how eager he’s been to help others,” said Dr. Jerry Clark, UMMC chief student affairs office and associate dean for student affairs in the School of Medicine. “It’s been so exciting to follow his journey related to the memory challenge.”

This time it was a journey of more than 10,000 miles. Accompanying Mullen on his adventure in Indonesia’s capital were Cathy Chen, 26, also an M3 and Oxford native; his parents Alison Mullen and Dr. Chris Mullen, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Mississippi; and the powerful “memory palace” techniques Mullen had mined from Joshua Foer’s book “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.”

Certainly, in Mullen’s hands, and brain, the book’s title is a clear case of truth-in-advertising. In Jakarta, on his way to amassing the greatest number of total competition points, he broke records in:

  • Five-minute number memorization: 568 numbers (old record: 520)
  • 60-minute digit memorization: 3,238 digits (old record: 3,029)
  • Speed card memorization (memorize a card deck sequence): 15.61 seconds (old record: 16.96)
  • Five-minute “historic” dates (memorize fictional events): 133 dates (old record: 132)

For all but that last event, Mullen had held the previous record, meaning he set new benchmarks in 40 percent of IAM’s 10 competition categories. He also recalled correctly 268 words after 15 minutes; 303 spoken numbers; and 5,235 binary digits after 30 minutes. He scored 295 points in the Five-Minute Random Image match.

“I always enjoy watching Alex compete,” Chen said. “There are few experiences more exhilarating that watching those you love immersed and thriving in their passions.”

In Jakarta, his passion helped the United States team take silver, second only to Team Mongolia’s gold. Beyond his latest victory, Mullen also turned 2016 on its ear, winning the IAM European Open Memory Championship and the IAM US Open.

It’s no secret how Mullen has become perhaps the world’s greatest PEZ dispenser of flawlessly remembered randomized ephemera. He and Chen share his methods on the website they co-founded, https://mullenmemory.com

“Alex got into memory techniques out of curiosity, but we quickly realized they could be adapted as learning tools,” Chen said.

Mullen’s mind-honing skills are a godsend to M1s and M2s, who are consigned to a memorization hell involving names and functions of antibiotics, bacteria and bones. Although the aids are somewhat less useful for M3s, Mullen said, “I’m still drawing on material I learned my second year.”

And others are drawing on his expertise. “Now, Alex and I devote our time outside of medical school to our non-profit Mullen Memory,” Chen said, “which translates and teaches high-level memory techniques to the everyday learner.

Alex Mullen and wife Cathy Chen, a fellow M3, co-authored a scholarly work on study tips.
Mullen and his wife, Cathy Chen, a fellow M3, co-authored a scholarly work on study tips.

“Since we’re married and go to school together, we can constantly bounce around new ideas.”

Mullen Memory features videos describing a memory palace construction site, in which your mind stores images, numbers, etc., in a physical location of your choosing. They are attached to the “furniture” or “loci” within your memory manse.

The approach exploits humans’ gift for spatial memory. The palaces don’t have to be structures; they can be routes through a familiar neighborhood or an invented one. They can be a “mythical creature,” as “Moonwalking” explains. The key is creating scenery that is unique and unforgettable.

Mullen swears that anyone can learn this, and many have – although not many as well as he has.

But that’s not what impresses Chen most about her husband. “I’m even more inspired by how I see him live every day — with hard work and humility,” she said. “He inspires me to pursue my passions in the same way.”

The couple took a gap year from medical school to, among other things, focus on their website. During that time they responded to an invitation from Dr. Tao Le, the editor-in-chief of “First Aid,” the standardized test prep series of books.

For the 2018 edition, Mullen and Chen wrote four pages titled “Effective Learning Strategies,” tailored to students preparing to take the first part of the United States Medical Licensing Exam (“First Aid for the USMLE Step 1”).

Mullen believes a CNN.com piece from March of 2017, “Hack your brain to remember almost anything,” prompted the invitation from Le. That year, he was also one of four memory mavens vying on Fox’s “Superhuman,” whose judges included Mike Tyson and singer/actor Christina Milian. Mullen’s task was to memorize a deck of card sequence in about half-a-minute.

In a network online video of that episode, he seems, at one point, to have misplaced some of his mental furniture. But – spoiler alert – he wins the audience, the contest and $50,000. The sum is greater than any he ever took home from a memory championship.

“Usually, you hope to cover the cost of the trip,” he said. Those who don’t know him well might wonder, then, if he’s considering retiring, especially since he has little left to prove in the world of competitive memorization.

“It’s still fun for me,” he said, “especially the faster events – the speed cards, the five-minute events. I don’t think I’ll ever train quite as hard as I once did, but I’ll try to challenge myself to improve on those.”

In other words: Retire? Forget about it.

See more of Alex Mullen, memory champion, on the web:

IAM World Memory Championship 2017 results: http://www.iam-memory.org/iam-world-memory-championship-2017/

Alex Mullen’s recap of IAM World Memory Championship 2017:  https://mullenmemory.com/blog/wmc2017

Video – Alex Mullen and the IAM World Memory Championship 2017: http://www.iam-memory.org/category/videos/

Video (excerpt) – CNN, Aug. 20, 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9pxMFAM58I :  CNN’s Vital Signs, Aug. 20, 2017

Article, featuring video produced by Alex Mullen and Cathy Chen – CNN.com, March 9, 2017: http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/08/health/memory-athletes-brain-training-study/index.html 

Video – “Superhuman,” Season 1, Episode 2, June 20, 2017: https://www.fox.com/watch/3f321f2d57fd5bd45e7bb6d0b513bac3/

Video, UMMC – October 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsP2ISvY3qg

“Memory serves M2 Alex Mullen, new world mental athlete champion” – UMMC news, Dec. 18, 2015: https://www.umc.edu/news/News_Articles/2015/December/Memory-serves-M2-Alex-Mullen--new-world-mental-athlete-champion.html