In the recent years we have seen the United States joining the top elite of memory athletes. One of the young and super talented Yankees is Alex Mullen. He jumped under the top 20 in the world in his first ranked tournament and placed fourth in the Extreme Memory Tournament 2015.
Memory-Sports.com: Hello Alex, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Alex Mullen: I’m 23, and right now I’m a 2nd year medical student living in Mississippi, which is where I grew up. I went to Johns Hopkins for college and studied biomedical engineering, and after that I went straight to medical school. As it stands now I’m interested in becoming an anaesthesiologist, but that might change by the time this comes out. In my free time, I like biking, watching movies and TV, and memorizing random stuff, among other things.
Memory-Sports.com: What made you become a memory athlete?
Alex Mullen: I first heard about this whole world of competitive memory from Joshua Foer’s 2012 TED talk. At the time, I just found it so incredible that people could memorize all these amazing things. Part of that probably came from feeling frustrated with my own memory for school and another part from a general fascination with the brain. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about the techniques before. So after watching that original talk, I tried to find as much material about memory as I could, and ended up reading 3 books—Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, Dominic O’Brien’s Quantum Memory Power, and Ron White’s Memory in a Month—in about two weeks. At the start, I was definitely more interested in using the techniques for my classes, but after making a 2-digit system and practising for a few weeks, I was totally hooked.
Memory-Sports.com: What do you like about memory sports?
Alex Mullen: The short answer is just that it’s fun, but I’d say that there are a handful of things that keep me interested. One is a general love of competition. Ever since I stopped competitive sports after high school, I’ve missed competing, and memory sports have been a great competitive outlet so to speak. I can continue to push myself to get measurably better at something, which is cool. I feel like it’s also good cross-training for school and general life applications. It helps me feel more creative and mentally engaged. Also, when I first started, I always heard that the community was very friendly, and that’s definitely been true in my experience, which is great. It’s a fun thing to be a part of.
Memory-Sports.com: What is your favourite memory discipline?
Alex Mullen: Cards and numbers are definitely my favourites. If I had to pick one discipline, I’d say speed cards. It’s the first event I ever really practiced and it’s always the event I’ve practiced the most, probably too much so.
Memory-Sports.com: What system do you use for numbers?
Alex Mullen: I use a 3-digit system with Major System phonetics. I started out using a 2-digit PAO but switched after about a year of using it. I really like the flexibility and variety of the 3-digit. I think it allows me to have a good mix of people and objects that works for me.
Memory-Sports.com: And what system do you use for cards?
Alex Mullen: I use a 2-card system, but with only 1352 images. It’s a combination of Johannes Mallow’s system and Lance Tschirhart’s Shadow System. The general idea comes from Hannes and the phonetics come from Lance. I’ll try not to go into too many details, but the gist is that each image can represent either a black-first pair or a red-first pair. If I see the black-first version, I continue linking images on the current locus. If it’s the red-first version, I make that image the last one on that locus and move to the next locus. So it uses a variable number of loci for each deck. I like it a lot because it allows me to use a “big” card system without having to know too many images outside my 3-digit system.
Memory-Sports.com: What memory championship is your favourite and why?
Alex Mullen: I tend to be impatient and unable to sit still so I’m very partial to the XMT. If there’s not a competition in the near future, I rarely practice anything longer than 5 minutes. I also tend to like digital events, since I can use highlighters and easily erase stuff and all that jazz.
Memory-Sports.com: At the XMT 2015 you ended up on a spectacular fourth place. What was your secret to compete against all these much more experienced memory athletes from all over the world?
Alex Mullen: No secret really, it was a combination of luck and level-headedness, which in itself was pretty lucky. I’m not always very relaxed during competitions, but I felt relatively at ease during the XMT, I guess mainly because I didn’t have much to lose. Like you say, everyone I was competing against had as much or more experience than I did, so I didn’t feel much pressure. I was thrilled just to make it to the second day. I just tried to be as consistent as possible and thankfully it worked out very well.
Memory-Sports.com: What do you think about the difference of analogue and digital memory championships? And what do you prefer?
Alex Mullen: Like I said before I definitely prefer digital, which in part is probably just because that’s how I practice. I like being able to highlight groups of data, erase and type things easily, and get my scores back immediately. But I also think that fast-paced, digital competitions like the XMT and MAA Open are the future of the sport, so I’m very partial to them in that sense alone.
Memory-Sports.com: In the United States memory sports are still very much unknown. How do you see the role of the US Memory Championship in that?
Alex Mullen: That’s a tricky question for me to answer. I definitely feel like memory sports could be much bigger in the U.S., but then again I know nothing about marketing so I’m not sure what the USAMC could do differently, or even if they want to do anything differently. Part of me likes the USAMC for what it is, and part of me is annoyed that it’s not an “official” WMSC competition. I absolutely wish there were more competitions in the U.S., because being a memory competitor and competing once per year is no fun. Hopefully with enough general awareness about the techniques, competitions will spring up around the country, and they already are to some degree with the XMT and MAA Open, but I’m guessing we’re a few good years away from any kind of tipping point.
Memory-Sports.com: What should be done to make the sport more popular in the US?
Alex Mullen: I wish I knew the answer to that. Joshua Foer’s book definitely made a big impact, but even with that book’s massive popularity, this year’s USAMC still had only 65 people, even less than the previous year. I think the sport probably needs to be seen as more accessible. In my experience, a lot of people hear about the techniques and think, “Hmm, maybe I’ll try that out,” but rarely have any interest in actually competing. They’re usually at most interested in trying them out for help in daily life. Which is totally fine, but I think part of that is because they look at things like the hour long events at the WMC and think, “Wow, I would never want to do that.” So in that sense, and I know I’m a bit biased here, I think shorter, digital events are the way to go.
Memory-Sports.com: You have never competed in the World Memory Championships before. Are you planning on changing that?
Alex Mullen: Yes! I’m hoping to compete this year in China, schedule-permitting. I have yet to actually ask for permission from my professors, but maybe I will just buy a plane ticket and tell them, “Well, I can’t back out now…”
Memory-Sports.com: Next year the four-annual Memoriad is coming to Las Vegas. What do you think about that event and will you compete?
Alex Mullen: I don’t really know much about Memoriad, but I like what I’ve heard. Seems like a fun time, and I like the idea of mixing in some non-memory stuff, even if I don’t actually try any of the other events. I’ve never been to Vegas before either, so I’d say chances are good that I’ll be there.
Memory-Sports.com: What would you change about memory sports if you could?
Alex Mullen: Like I said, I like short, digital events, so personally I’d like to see things move more in that direction. Being able to challenge people head-to-head like at the XMT is a great idea as well, in my opinion. One of my least favourite things about the sport is that it can be very solitary, but I don’t think it needs to be that way. Nelson’s said he’s working on turning the XMT training site into something interactive like that, where you can challenge other people in real-time. I’m really looking forward to that. I also wish I could just a push a button and memory sports would suddenly be popular. Hopefully things continue to move in all of those directions. I like the team part of the WMC too, so I’d add in more team-based events.
Memory-Sports.com: What are your personal future plans in regards of memory sports and memory techniques?
Alex Mullen: I hope to keep competing as long as I can. When 12-year-old memory geniuses start dominating the game, maybe I’ll bow out, but yeah, for the time being I love doing it and don’t see myself giving it up. I don’t think I’d ever give up memory techniques altogether, since I’ve found them so useful in school and they’re such an integral part of my daily life now. I’m always using them for classes and something or other. For instance, right now I’m using a memory system to learn Chinese. I am hoping to move into the teaching, coaching, and possibly speaking aspects at some point. I like keeping up my blog and getting to talk to other people about what works and what doesn’t. I do think the techniques could kick off a potential revolution in education, although whether or not that will actually happen remains to be seen. I’m hopeful.
Memory-Sports.com: What is your vision for the future of memory sports?
Alex Mullen: Getting back to an interactive site like the OMC (Online Memory Challenge), I’d really love something like that again, and I think that’s where things are headed. Online, interactive, fast-paced, and digital. And like I said, more team events. I’d also be happy to see some more “extreme” memorizing, like underwater or on a roller coaster or maybe even skydiving. I actually think Jonas von Essen has done all of those, maybe with the exception of skydiving, haha.
Memory-Sports.com: Thank you for your time.
Alex Memory Champion Profile