He can memorize the order of a deck of cards in 17 seconds…
He holds the Guinness Book’s World Record for memorizing 3,029 digits in an hour
He’s the first American to claim the title of Memory World Champion…
And he’s only 23!
Alex Mullen joins us on Episode 37 of the Optimal Performance Podcast to share his strategies you you can improve your memory.
He can memorize the order of a deck of cards in 17 seconds…, he holds the Guinness Book World Record for memorizing 3,029 digits in an hour, he’s the first American to claim the title of Memory World Champion…and he’s only 23!
A graduate of the Johns Hopkins BioMedical Engineering program, Alex Mullen is currently a 2nd-year medical school student at the University of Mississippi. When he’s not taking classes, he’s compiling an impressive resume in the memory competition world – all with the goal of helping others, like you and me, improve OUR memories.
Talking with Alex was a blast, enjoy…
Spaced Repetitions = If you want to remember something long-term, you HAVE to review it.
What You’ll Learn From Alex Mullen on How To Improve Your Memory:
- Our strengths often come from working on our deficits…how Alex turned his memory struggles into a World Championship
- Applying memory contest techniques to real-world applications – AKA: HOW YOU CAN USE IT
- The “curve of forgetting” and why cramming doesn’t work for long-term memory
- Alex’s 4 Tips To Improve Your Memory:
- Memory Palace – The strategy Alex uses to memorize everything – including a deck of cards in 17 seconds.
- Spaced Repetitions – The secret to moving information from short-term memory to long-term
- Exercise Your Memory – Test yourself with everyday things like names of people you meet, grocery lists, and more – have fun, build confidence, and keep the momentum rolling
- How To Learn a New Language/Grow Your Vocabulary – Assign images to words and
- How memory techniques boost visual creativity
- The 20-Word Memory Challenge
- @31:31 = Take the 10-Word Challenge NOW! Can YOU memorize these 10 words?
- Alex’s World Record of 3,029 digits memorized in 60 minutes – 15% improvement over the previous record.
- Get more from Alex Mullen
- Alex gives us his Top 3 tips to #LiveOptimal
Links & Resources
More Tools to Optimize Your Mental Performance
- Improve mood, motivation and productivity with Dopamine Brain Food
- Get laser-like focus and enhanced memory potentiation with CILTEP
- Reduce stress and make everyday feel like a vacation with Serotonin Brain Food
- Smart Caffeine improves cognition and boosts energy naturally without the jitters or sleep disruption
CONTINUE THE CONVERSATION BELOW WITH YOUR QUESTION OR COMMENT
4 Tips to Improve Your Memory with World Champion Alex Mullen
Ryan: You are listening to the Optimal Performance Podcast sponsored by Natural Stacks. If you’re into biohacking, performance or getting more out of life, this is the show for you! For more on building optimal performance into your life, check out optimalperformance.com
Alright, happy Thursday all you optimal performers! Welcome to another episode of the Optimal Performance Podcast. I’m your host Ryan Munsey I want to welcome in today’s guest. We are lucky enough to be talking to the first American to claim the title of World Memory Champion, Mr. Alex Mullen. Alex, thanks for hanging out with us today.
Alex: Hey Ryan, thanks for having me! I’m looking forward to it.
Ryan: Yeah. So we’re really excited to do this. Before we really dig in, we’ll introduce you to our listeners. You’re a young guy, how old are you?
Alex: Yeah, we’ll I’m 23 right now. Almost 24, in a month. But yeah, I’m 23.
Ryan: So at 23 years old, you have a resume that says you have an undergrad engineering degree from Johns Hopkins, you’re a 2nd year medical student at Ole Miss, you are the first American –
Ryan: – World Memory Champion.
Alex: Yeah, sorry, it’s always kind of a confusing thing to say.
Ryan: First – first American to win that title and –
Alex: Right, that’s right.
Ryan: – that was 2015 and you’re also the Guinness Book of World Records holder for most digits memorized in one hour at 3,029.
Ryan: [laughs] Alright. So that’s an incredible resume. We’re gonna talk about a lot of this stuff as we get going. But before we do that, a couple of housekeeping notes for you guys listening. Make sure you head over to optimalperformance.com to see the video version of this. I’m sure Alex is gonna share some stuff with us that we’ll provide links in the show notes, all kinds of resources for you guys to increase your focus, enhance your memory, learn a lot of the stuff that has helped Alex be so successful so early on in his life. Also, if you haven’t done so, while you’re on the site make sure you sign up for our VIP list of optimizers so you can stay up to date with everything that we are bringing you to help you optimize your life. And share the Optimal Performance Podcast with somebody that you know who will benefit from and enjoy what we’re talking about, what we’re doing here. ‘Cause that’s our goal, ultimately, is to help more people live optimal. So, Alex let’s dive in.
Alex: Yeah, let’s do it!
Ryan: You have an engineering degree, now you’re in medical school.
Alex: Right, right.
Ryan: Where do you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years? We’re just gonna throw the hard [unclear 00:03:01] –
Ryan: – right away.
Alex: So first of all, let me just say I’m a little sick so I apologize if I keep coughing. But yeah, I, so I went to Johns Hopkins for an undergrad, I got my degree in biomedical engineering. So I mean I, you know, even going into college I kind of knew I wanted to do something in the medical field, so which is why I did biomedical engineering. But then I, so I went to med school, I’m in med school now, I’m a 2nd year student. Yeah, I mean I, you know, in 5 years I’ll hopefully be a resident somewhere practicing medicine. Still not sure yet what specialty it’s gonna be, that’s still kind of, figuring that out, hopefully I’ll figure it out next year. And then yeah, so I – I’ve kind of, you know, this was something that I definitely didn’t expect. I have all this memory-related stuff that I work on now that, you know, 5 years ago wasn’t even on my radar at all. And so, kind of my goal I guess, you know, moving forward is to, you know, be a physician, kind of, probably first and foremost, at least for the moment. And then, kind of, you know, work part time on all this memory stuff. Most of it targeted towards education, so helping people apply memory techniques to the classroom, to learning, you know, material for exams, stuff like that.
Ryan: Okay, very cool. Now that’s one of the things that I’ve seen that on your website where, you know, it was your – I don’t want to call them struggles – but your experience in the early part of med school that –
Ryan: – prompted you to kind of pursue this memory stuff. So I guess that’s kind of two-fold is, you know, you have that experience but also, you know, now that you have learned it that you’re trying to bring that and share it with more people. You guys talk on the website –
Ryan: You and your wife kinda do this together, right?
Alex: That’s right, yeah. So my wife is also – she’s right over there. She is a – she’s also a 2nd year student at Ole Miss with me. So we both – she doesn’t do memory competitions, but we both do – we both are med students and I’ve kind of taught her these techniques over the years and she uses them as much, if not more, than I do. And so yeah, we both kind of – we both use the techniques in school and we both work on, you know, this website trying to teach the techniques to other people.
Ryan: Now, one of the things that you guys mention on the website is that you want to try to get – help people move away from that ace the test and forget it later.
Alex: Yeah, yeah.
Ryan: That kind of cramming mentality. Talk a little bit about how some of what you guys do is centered around, kind of, learning for life and, you know, I’ll let you take it from there.
Alex: Okay, so I guess just to get – just to give a little more back into the background. You mentioned that we – we started in med school but that’s not actually quite right. So I started at – I first learned about the techniques when I was a – I always kind of forget this, ironically – like a sophomore in college. So it must have been, let’s see, I think March of 2013 was the first time that I, you know, got exposed to this whole memory thing. So first off I guess I should just say that I’m not, by any means, like a memory genius, I don’t have any special memory talent, I was not born with a great memory. And, you know, like obviously I tell people that and they’re like: ‘Okay, sure.’ You know, but you know, what I do have, I think, is maybe a) some free time to practice and b) sort of a weird obsession with, you know, training and improving at this kind of obscure skill. So I think I do have that, but in terms of actual memory talent, you know, I really don’t think that I have anything special. So yeah, so I found out about the techniques in March of 2013 by this TED Talk by Joshua Foer who wrote this book called ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’ which is sort of the most famous account of memory competitions in terms of, you know, public exposure. And yeah, so I started – I didn’t really do much at first with using the techniques for learning, I mainly just focused on the competitions and memorizing things like numbers and cards. So for instance, you know, without trying to digress too much, in the competition what we do is there’s generally 10 events. And so some of them are card memorization, so you take a deck of playing cards and you memorize the order of the cards as fast as you can. There are numbers events. So for instance, you memorize as many numbers as you can in 5 minutes. Other things like memorizing historic dates, memorizing people’s names and faces, memorizing the, you know, lists of random words, sometimes there are poetry events, sometimes there are like binary digit events. And so those are, you know, those are obviously not very ostensibly applicable to life. You know, most people don’t need to memorize binary digits, they don’t need to know how to memorize playing cards. And so but that was what I was focusing more on when I first started.
Alex: And then, so you mentioned that I was an engineering major. And, you know, part of the reason I didn’t really apply it to my school life is because, you know, as an engineer a lot of it is sort of focused on conceptual understanding and not quite as much on, you know memori- it’s not as memorization heavy, you know, versus something like medical school, which is very memorization heavy.
Alex: And so the thing is, you know, when I finally, you know, made that transition, graduated, went to medical school, I kind of found myself, you know, my wife is also an engineer so we both found ourselves in this position of not really feeling prepared for the volume of information that we needed to be able to memorize. And sort of the sad thing – the really, the saddest thing was that like, you know, at this point I was already sort of an advanced memory competitor and I still was kinda struggling to apply memory techniques to learning. You know, I could memorize numbers really quickly, I could memorize cards very quickly, but in terms of, you know, being able to consistently apply the techniques to my school, it just wasn’t really happening the way I wanted it to. And, so that was frustrating. And I remember being very frustrated with the fact that, you know, there’s plenty of stuff out there on the internet to learn how to memorize cards or to memorize names and faces, but there’s really not very many examples out there of how to apply the techniques to learning, you know, medical school concepts. Things like chemistry, biology. That stuff is very hard to find. And so, you know, that’s part of the reason why I eventually kind of moved into this education project. But, so the good news is that basically, you know, my wife and I kind of experimented a lot and we sort of figured out a way that we feel like, you know, we feel like we have a very good way now of applying memory techniques to learning that works. That really kind of capitalizes on the advantages of memory techniques and allow you to remember things much longer than you otherwise would. And so, you know, it’s a combination – our strategy is sort of a combination of memory techniques, spaced repetition for reviewing the material and active learning, so like testing yourself using practice questions and things. And so, you know, that kind of combination of things we think really improves your ability to remember something for your entire life rather than just, you know, at the test and you forget it 2 weeks later. So that was sort of a very roundabout way of answering your question, but –
Ryan: Yeah, well before we really get into what you’re doing and what you found what works, I’d like to hear your thoughts on maybe why those traditional memorization techniques that you would use for a competition don’t carry over to more practical things like you mentioned.
Alex: Right. So, you know, I kind of – just to, I guess just to note. You know, obviously Luis Angel who’s another, kind of, memory guy who’s a friend of mine was on this podcast, you know, a few weeks ago.
Alex: And so I guess, you know, I won’t go into as much right now about the – about what memory techniques are ’cause I think he sort of did that. You know, just this idea of kind of visualizing creative stories to represent what the information is you’re trying to remember. So I won’t go into too much about that. But the gist of what my issues were going from competitions to school, the techniques themselves are, you know, in structure exactly the same. But the things that I was struggling with were, you know, I use memory palaces to learn everything. So, so memory palaces, you know, that’s something that I don’t think Luis talked as much about. But a memory palace is basically just a physical location that you can imagine in your mind. So it’s based off the idea that people’s spacial memories are very naturally strong. So, you know, for instance if you went to your friend’s house, you don’t need to sit there and walk around and memorize your friend’s house. If you left without even thinking about it you would remember the layout of his house, or his or her house, you know what I mean? And so that’s sort of the basic idea. And so when I’m memorizing things I always have this place that I’m imagining. You know, I’m not actually in that place but I’m just imagining that place in my mind and kind of walking through it mentally and placing these images and stories to remember the information. And so that’s what I do both for competitions and then also for – for learning in, you know, in school. Part of the problem is when you want to use that technique in school, you don’t really want to be re-using palaces. So I have to make new palaces every time I wanna learn something new. If I learned, you know, say the chapter about, you know, kidney pathology for med school in, say, you know, like the auditorium or the, you know, some part of my original high school, I am not gonna go back and re-put information in that same place. That place is always gonna be just for kidney pathology, nothing else. And so I struggled because, you know, I sort of just was feeling like I was running out of places. You know, I felt like I was having to spend all this extra time to make new palaces and it just kind of felt very, just kind of like too much work.
Alex: You know?
Alex: And so that was a big issue that I was facing applying memory techniques. You know, for competitions for instance, I kind of have this set of fixed locations and that always covers all the events I have to do. I just re-use the same palaces, you know, when I do – when I memorize a deck of playing cards, you know, I’ll use palace A. And then, you know, a week later when I wanna memorize another deck I’ll just go back to week A and use the same palace.
Ryan: Right, so cards –
Alex: So that’s not a problem.
Ryan: Yeah. Like every – whatever that event is it’s always A, palace A –
Alex: Yeah exactly.
Ryan: – event 2 is always palace B and you would just wipe the slate clean. But for medical school you can’t do that.
Alex: Exactly, yeah.
Alex: And that – and of course, that, you know, that’s part of the idea of being able to remember things very long-term. It’s nice to have unique places for all the information. When I think of kidney pathology, I always just kind of, mentally zoom to that place, to the place to my high school.
Alex: And it’s nice to kinda keep it all very self-contained like that.
Ryan: Yeah, so that’s my question then is: what was the solution?
Alex: Right. Okay, so the way I sort of ended up combating that problem was that – I hope this doesn’t get too complicated. Just to note, like, if anybody is very confused by everything I’m saying right now, if you go to my website, it’s mullenmemory.com. So M-U-L-L-E-N memory.com, we have lots of tutorials that sort of just explain the basics of memory techniques and how to get started. So if anything’s confusing, I’d suggest doing that. But to answer your question, the way I ended up doing it was – first of all, I really sat down and brainstormed pretty much every place that I could. So every place that I’ve been that goes, you know, that’s all the places I’ve lived, that’s, you know, every place I could think of on my high school campus, my middle school campus, my college campus, med school campus. You know, all the shops, stores, restaurants, hotels, bars, anything that I could think if that I’ve been to. And I think, one sort of important thing to realize is that you don’t need to know the location perfectly well. So originally I think I was like: ‘Okay, I need to pick a place that I know really well.’ And that’s not necessarily the case. So just sort of expanding that horizon sort of opened up this whole new world of places that I could use. And so, you know, brainstorming that I easily sort of came up with, like, almost 300 different places that I could potentially use. And so suddenly I had a lot to work with. And the second thing was that when I memorize now, I sort of just choose the – I guess to clarify, so when I use memory palaces I use different, sort of, stops along the way, so little points. So for instance if I’m moving around, you know, the room that I’m in now, I could make one of those stops the couch, one of them could be the TV, one of them could be the fireplace. And I call those loci, so and most people in the memory world call them loci. So you have loci which are points within your memory palace. And when I’m, you know, learning stuff for school I choose those loci as I learn. So if I’m learning something about the kidney and I learn the first disease and I put it on the first locus, then when I’ve, you know, decided what I want to memorize for the second disease, I’ll say: ‘Okay, now I’m gonna choose this for the second locus ‘, I’ll put the information there. And so, it sort of feels like, you know, doing that, sort of doing it on the fly as I go, it really feels like I’m not adding any extra time. ‘Cause all I have to do is choose the location to start and then I just kind of pick it as I go. And there’s no really, kind of, work I have to do ahead of time to build these palaces. So it sort of cut time down there.
Ryan: And so, for people who may not be familiar with the memory palace technique, when you need to recall the information essentially you just walk through that. Whatever your physical location is and –
Ryan: – you go to those loci and you retrieve whatever that information is that you stored or left there.
Alex: Right. So, and, you know, like I said you just create these kind of crazy stories that you visualize on those loci in your palaces. And then, you’ll find, I think, a lot of people don’t really – it’s not intuitive. But when you go back and you mentally kind of, look at these places, those images really just pop back into your head very easily.
Ryan: It’s funny. The way I was taught is you make it as weird and as abstract as possible so that it sticks with you. And I mean I will –
Ryan: – I’m already having, every time you say, you know, kidney pathology, I think about okay, well, Alex’s high school auditorium.
Ryan: It’s a very strong connection, especially if it’s something that’s, you know, where you spent a lot of time or have other connections, too.
Alex: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. It’s interesting, ’cause like a lot – something I’ve kind of learned using these techniques for school is that, you know, the associations that you make, even if they don’t really make sense, end up being a lot stronger than you think they are. So like, you know like you said, like, you know, I don’t even need – I don’t need to do something extra to connect my high school auditorium to kidney pathology. It’s just sort of like [snap] ingrained in me now. I just think – I see kidney pathology, I immediately just go there, you know. And so those associations are very strong without even trying to.
Ryan: Now, let’s talk about some of the problems with cramming, ’cause I know that’s something that is a big concern for you and your wife and what you’re trying to tell people.
Alex: Yeah, absolutely.
Ryan: So, if we cram, you know, why is that not – why does that not work long-term?
Alex: I think the short answer is just that human memory sucks [laughs]. So, I mean, you know, plenty of studies have shown this. Basically, there’s something called a curve of forgetting. So, you know, the more time you spend having not reviewed something, it’s just sort of this exponential, kind of, decline in your memory. And I think that’s definitely, you know, if you really kind of sit and think about it that’s definitely true. And so the, you know, the way that science has sort of, you know, shown to combat this, the best way to combat it is to review the information periodically. And so when I mentioned spaced repetition before, that’s what I mean. For anybody who doesn’t know about that, it’s basically just, you know, you review the information periodically after you learn it the first time and then you space it out more and more and more as you go. So say if you learned something on Monday, you know, maybe you’ll review it on Wednesday and then you’ll review it again on, you know, the next Sunday and then you’ll review it again 2 weeks from then and then a month from then and then a year from then. So, you know, the nice thing is that you don’t have to keep reviewing it all the time. It, you know, as you review it more you can wait longer and longer and your memory will be stronger. And so that’s another – that’s another big thing that I didn’t mention. That, you know, was sort of the difference between getting these techniques to work for school and not. So, you know, this palace thing that I’ve been talking about that’s, you know, that’s something that I struggle with personally but that’s a little more of a niche thing. This idea of spaced repetition and reviewing the information in your palaces I think is much more – much more important and much more pertinent, probably, to the everyday person.
Alex: I mean, it’s just – it’s just kind of a fact. Like, you know, science pretty much just says it very clearly. You know, if you want to remember something for the long term, you have to review it. And really, spaced repetition is the most efficient way to do that.
Ryan: That’s – that’s how we get it from short-term memory to long-term memory.
Alex: Sure, yeah.
Ryan: Okay, awesome. So we’ve got 2 really, really killer tips from you already, Alex: the memory palace, spaced repetition. Let’s press you and see if we can get maybe 2 more really good memory tips. And then, of course –
Ryan: – we definitely want to talk about, you know, this 20-word challenge. We’ll throw that in at the end.
Alex: Yeah, sure.
Ryan: So, give – let’s see if we can get 2 more really good tips to help our listeners improve their memory.
Alex: Okay, yeah. So, you know, I think one – one thing to do, I think, is just try to acti- you know, try to actively exercise your memory as often as you can. So, you know, a lot of people say that, like, most of memory is just paying attention. And so I think, you know, one really easy way to apply memory techniques to your life instantly without really any extra time is just to, you know, do things like when you meet somebody new, turn their name into a picture. So I know, like, Luis talked about in the last one. You know, he said Ryan he would turn into a running ant.
Alex: You know, he would visualize a running ant sort of maybe running on your eyebrows or something like that.
Alex: So, you know, yeah. So, you know, that doesn’t take any extra time out of your life. You don’t need to use any, you know, extra time to do that. You just, you know, you meet someone, you take their name, turn it into a picture. And that’s something that will, you know, get you actively kind of thinking about your memory and exercising it. You can do that with, like I said, names and faces. You can do that when you’re watching TV, you know, even just watching TV if you see somebody come up you can turn their name into a face if you – if you – and you come across a list, maybe it’s your shopping list or, you know, anything like that. Just try to turn those things into images that you can visualize. And really just, you know, that’s something that doesn’t really take a whole lot of extra time, I think.
Alex: And it’s nice. It’s a nice way to sort of impress yourself with how good your memory can be. And I think it’s, you know, it can be very fun. It’s, you know, when you’re visualizing things just be as kind of crazy and inhibition-free as possible. You just let the associations sort of come to you. Even if it doesn’t make sense. It’s just, you know, you can see crazy characters to represent things, you can see objects, you know, interacting in crazy ways. You know, it can be violent, it can be sexual, it can be hilarious, it can be anything you want it to be. And it’s pretty – it’s just pretty interesting. You know, I – in my life, like I didn’t think – I never even thought like: ‘Oh, this is something that I can do.’ I was like: ‘Oh, that seems kind of – ‘. You know, I wouldn’t have thought: ‘Oh, that’s something that I can sort of exploit.’ You know, I just say: ‘Okay, maybe that’s sort of cheating. It’s cheating to think of things like that.’ But it’s really not, you know, it really just strengthens your memory. It just asso- you know, the human mind just works on associations and that’s a way to do that.
Ryan: Do your classmates know that you’re an incredible, you know, memory champion? Do they ask you for help on homework or tests or – ?
Alex: Sometimes, yeah. Occasionally. Yeah, I think they’re probably more annoyed with me kind of blowing up their Facebook walls than anything else.
Ryan: Are you the guy that breaks the curve? They don’t get graded on a curve ’cause you always get good grades.
Alex: Well, you know, there’s some crazy smart people in my class. So I’m not even – I’m not even topping that. I’m too busy focused on, you know, trying to make videos and stuff to –
Alex: – to actually do well in school. I’m kidding. But, but yeah, I mean so that would be one, sort of tip is just to, you know, really try to actively use it in your daily life. It’s not that difficult.
Alex: Names, lists, anything like that.
Ryan: What about languages? You’ve got some stuff on your website about learning a new language.
Alex: Sure! Yeah, so I mean essentially it’s, you know, learning languages, so specifically language vocabulary is sort of one of the most straight-forward applications of memory techniques. So, you know, say – the way I do it, for instance, is, you know, I pretty much always, these days I’m using some sort of memory palace when I’m learning. So if I wanted to learn, say, 10 words of Spanish, you know, maybe I’d just start in, say, the room I’m in now but I, you know, or I’d imagine some room. It can be inside; it can be outside. It can be anything, but I’m just picking a room as an example. And, you know, maybe I just start with the couch, you know, say there’s a couch in the room. And, you know, I’ll just – just to make it simple I’ll give an example that I did on my website. So the word in Spanish for apple is manzana. So what you do basically is you make an image for the Spanish word, you make an image for the English word, and then you just kind of make them interact on that locus, on that location. So, for instance, manzana is apple so maybe you would imagine an apple for the English word and then you wanna kind of convert the Spanish word into something you can visualize. So, manzana kinda sounds to me, like, if you break it down it kinda sounds like man sand. So, manzana, man sand. And maybe what you could imagine is, you know, maybe there’s like chopped up slices of apple sort of layered all over the couch and then this man has decided that, you know, that’s bothering him so he walks up to the couch and he has a big bag of sand and he just covers the entire couch and all the apples in – in this big bag of sand. I have no idea why he would wanna do that, but that’s not really the point.
Alex: You know?
Ryan: The point is that it’s memorable.
Alex: Yeah, exactly. So, you know, and so when you come back to that, you know, you remember there are apples in this place, you remember man sand, and then that just kind of triggers the manzana meaning apple. Um, so that would be just an example of that.
Ryan: So, will all of the – the memory palaces and the imagery, the visualization, it’s so out of the box. Do you find that it helps build your brain’s ability to – to be creative in other ways? Is there carryover into, like, a creative process for writing or for doing anything else?
Alex: Yeah. I mean so, so I guess to answer your question one thing I would say is that I don’t think necessarily that memory techniques or using memory techniques has sort of made me smarter. You know, anyone looking to use memory techniques to sort of turn themselves into a genius or to like, you know, be able to just remember literally, like, quote unquote everything. That’s – that’s not what memory techniques are for, really. Like, you know, what I think you could use memory techniques to do is apply them actively and really make whatever you’re learning more efficient. But it’s not just gonna kind of [snap] turn you into a genius. You know [snap] just like that. So, where I was going was that, you know, it doesn’t maybe necessarily turn you into a genius but what it does do, I think what it has changed for me is really boosted my visual creativity. So I’m – I think I’m, you know, I think I’m able to visualize things much more clearly and much more creatively than I was before. And you know, I mentioned that, you know, maybe memory techniques aren’t quite as useful for something like engineering or math or physics where it’s more conceptual than memorization-based. But I think that something that memory techniques can help you with for those things is improve your visualization capability. And I think being able to visualize and sort of see things in your head is a pretty important way to understand concepts in general.
Ryan: It’s a pretty important talent or skill for architecture or engineering as well, right?
Alex: Sure. Yeah, exactly. So I think, you know, I think it maybe hasn’t made me smarter in just kind of a general sense, but it has sort of improved my visualization ability, I think, in general.
Ryan: Okay, cool. So have you – have you learned multiple languages?
Alex: [laughs] So I wish I could say yes, but I have not, no. I’m still sort of – I’m learning Chinese and Spanish right now.
Alex: But I’m – but unfortunately I’m not quite at the point yet where I’m fluent in either one. But I’m working on it, yeah.
Ryan: Okay, alright. So, and I assume that you’re doing it using the techniques that you’ve told us.
Alex: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
Ryan: Okay, alright. I wanna hear about this 20-word challenge. How can we memorize 20 words in order?
Alex: Sure! So, so the – just to give you some kind of background of the idea. My wife and I have this thing called the 20-word challenge on our website which is just a video where I kinda walk you through how I would use a memory palace to memorize a list of 20 random words. And, you know, you know, memorizing 20 random words isn’t really applicable necessarily directly to life. But the reason we like this video and the reason I’m excited about it is because it is, you know, a real confidence builder for a lot of builder. So when, you know, when I first tell people about memory techniques, they’re – I’d say most of the time, more often than not, they’re just like: ‘Oh no no no, I can’t. I can’t do that,’ you know, ‘maybe you can do that, you’re the world memory champion but I can’t,’ you know, ‘I can’t do that, it’s not something I can do.’ And I think just – just showing them how to do this and then, you know, inevitably they’ll get 19, 20 or a perfect 20 right. It really kind of gives them confidence that they can actually do this and that it really works for people. And so I, you know, I like to – I like to use this as sort of a way to kind of get people in the door to using memory techniques. And so, you know, in terms of the video, I recommend – I’d love everybody to watch it. But basically what it is is I just walk through this house and it’s, you know, it’s exactly like the memory palace technique I’ve been talking about. I just start on my first locus; I associate the first word with the first locus. And, you know, you just go through. I just go through locus number 1 through locus number 20 and by the end you have these associations on each locus that will cue you in to the word.
Ryan: So, you mentioned a couple of different videos on your website. We’ll have a link to your website and on the show notes optimalperformance.com. So for our listeners, you guys can go over there and you can see the link to Alex’s website, but also we’ll get the specific video that we’re talking about here and we’ll either embed it or put a link to it so you guys can check that out. I’d love for you guys listening to experience that and to experiment with it. So, is there a way, Alex, that we can get you to shorten it and give us 10?
Alex: Oh, yeah.
Ryan: And take us through it like right now? So that if somebody’s –
Alex: Yeah, absolutely.
Ryan: – in their car or walking and they wanna kind of actively test it.
Alex: So yeah, I’ll try to, you know, obviously it’s nice when you can sort of see me doing the examples on the video but I think you can easily, sort of, pick loci just of your own home.
Alex: So, yeah. So let’s just – okay, I’ll just go ahead and do the – if I can remember them, the 20 words, the first 10 of the 20 words in the video.
Alex: So, the first word is carrot. So maybe start – start outside your house or wherever you live and, you know, try to visualize, try to imagine your mailbox. And just imagine that, you know, you’re opening up your mailbox and instead of getting out your mail, there’s just one giant carrot just sort of stuffed into your mailbox, okay? So, so that’s the first word is carrot. So, you know, it’s – it can be a little tricky ’cause people obviously have different types of homes. But let’s say your next one is sort of your driveway area. So first one was carrot, second one is rug. So just imagine that instead of, you know, a nice kinda concrete or gravel driveway you’ve just got one long rug. It’s just running the length of your whole driveway. So your driveway is just a rug. So that’s number 2, is rug. Okay, so number 3 maybe imagine that, you know, there’s a tree, say, in your front yard. Okay? And that – the next word is papers. So just imagine maybe like a big – maybe imagine that there are just a b- like basically there are papers just sort of thumb-tacked all over this tree. So you’re imagining your tree and you’re just sort of mentally thumb-tacking in all these papers, covering your entire tree in papers. Sort of as an extra hook maybe it’s kind of humiliating for the tree because the tree, you know, paper comes from tree so it’s – it’s just, you know, there’s something kind of an extra hook to remember it. So, let’s see, number 4 from the video the word was fan. So maybe imagine now that you are at your front door and maybe imagine that there’s, kind of, you know, your door is really dirty ’cause there was a recent storm and you’re taking this fan, maybe it’s like a Chinese fan or something and you’re just sort of wiping it all off, you’re cleaning it off with a fan. So that is number 4. Okay, and then maybe just right inside the front door, sort of right on the rug – or the, you know, the carpet where you walk in, you’re about to walk in and instead of stepping on the rug to wipe your feet off you accidentally step onto a miniature castle. So maybe you could imagine some sort of, you know, Lego castle or something if you want to. But you’re stepping on a castle and so that’s your 5th word, so that’s castle. Okay, so let’s move into the, let’s say the kitchen of your house. And then let’s start at the oven. And so the next word is rope. So, just imagine maybe that you’re opening your oven and just this really bad smell comes out because you’ve just cooked this huge, thick coil of rope and it’s just sort of burning and, you know, smelling bad. So that’s the next one. Maybe go to your stove-top for the 7th word. Let’s see, what was the next one? The next one was concept. So that’s something that’s a little more abstract of a word, concept. You know, the other ones were sort of just easy objects.
Alex: But for concept, you know, and I explain this in some of my videos. Try to, you know, think of the first thing that comes to mind. And so, for me, in the video what I did was I made concept somebody sort of writing with chalk onto a chalkboard. So maybe explaining some kind of concept on the chalkboard. And so that cues you in to concept. And so maybe now imagine that on top of your stove you are cooking a chalkboard.
Alex: So, you know, maybe in the frying pan now you’re just like, kind of, whipping up a chalkboard and maybe even there’s some kind of miniature person on there trying to, you know, frantically write out this concept before he gets burned by the frying pan. So, let’s keep going real quick. Number 8 maybe make it, you know, your dining room table or kitchen table. Number 8 was star. So, and you know, maybe you can just imagine you’re just kind of leaning back in your dining room chair and you’re looking up and your kind of ceiling is just covered in stars. So it’s like your ceiling has kinda turned into the night sky. Number 9 is van. So maybe now go to your fridge. And so, just imagine that like, you open up the fridge and now, instead of like, your food being where it should be, there’s just these big, kind of, vans. You know, like car, you know the van, like a van just sort of stacked, you know filling up your fridge. And then finally, almost done! Number 10 in the video is sharp. So maybe imagine that you go over to your, you know, silverware drawer now and you just kinda blindly sort of reach in there for a fork but there’s a really sharp knife just sticking up and you just prick your hand on that thing. And that’s sharp. So if you run, you know, I think you’ll find that if you run through these really quickly in your head you should be able to just do, you know, carrot, rug, papers, fan, castle, rope, concept, star, van, sharp. You know, very quickly just like that. And you know, I obviously had to explain this not knowing what your house looks like so, you know, you do it yourself and you pick something that’s very intuitive. The journey through that memory palace is very intuitive to you. So hopefully that gives you kind of a taste of what it’s like.
Ryan: Yeah! That’s awesome. Thank you, Alex. Hopefully the listeners, you know, hopefully you guys enjoyed that and as you – as you listen you start to realize that hey, this is something I can do and it would be very helpful. So, very cool. Alright, now we want to talk about the 3,029 –
Alex: Yeah, yeah.
Ryan: – digits.
Alex: Let’s do it.
Ryan: You’re – you’re a Guinness Book of World Records holder. How many, I mean, just – I wanna hear all about it. How many attempts did it take to – to get there? I mean, was it – how long did it take you to recall 3,000 digits?
Alex: Right, right. So, the actual event – so I did it once at the World Memory Championships which was in China in December of 2015. You know, they have 10 events in the competition. One of them is just this hour numbers event. And so you have 1 hour to memorize as many digits as you can. So they give you – depending on what the world record is they sort of give you a little more than that. And so they gave us 3,600 to memorize. The record at the time was 2,660.
Ryan: Holy smokes.
Alex: And so – so I – yeah, I memorized about – about 3,400 of those 3,600 and then, you know, I made some mistakes and they – they’re sort of very criti- you know, very harsh in terms of scoring. So if you miss one digit or 2 digits in a line of 40, they cut off the whole line of 40, so you lose all of those points. So I went from 3,400 down to 3,029.
Ryan: Even that –
Alex: So that’s memorizing –
Ryan: – event that’s like a 20% increase over the – the previous record.
Alex: Yeah. It’s a crazy –
Ryan: It’s huge!
Alex: I tell you, like, it’s crazy ’cause, you know, memory world records just keep getting broken every year after year. 6 out of the 10 events at the World Memory Championships the world record was broken this past year. And it’s crazy. So, just to kind of finish that thought real quick, though.
Alex: You know, I – you – I memorized them for an hour so it’s literally, it’s exactly what it sounds like. I’m just sitting there staring at pages of digits for 1 whole hour. After the hour they take them away, they give you a recall sheet and then you have 2 hours at that point to just take a pencil and re-write all the digits. And yeah, and so that’s – that’s how it works. But yeah, I mean, getting back to the world record thing. It’s kinda crazy ’cause, you know, in, say, these competitions got started in the 90’s, or the early 90’s. And, you know, what the records, what the world records were, say, in 2000 – at this point in 2015 or 2016 now, they’ve, you know, people have quadrupled or quintupled, just completely thrashed the [unclear 00:39:54] – world records used to be. And, you know, those old records used to, you know, if you look at those as a – as a quote unquote layperson, you would still be impressed by them.
Ryan: Right. Now it wouldn’t even be enough to qualify for the competitions.
Alex: Right, right. I mean, it’s like, you know, it’s crazy ’cause the people at the time, they thought there were kind of at the limits of human memory, right? They’re like: ‘Okay, you know, I don’t even know if people are gonna be able to beat this by very much.’ And then here we are 15 years later just crushing it. It’s crazy how, sort of psychological all of these memory barriers are. People just continue to beat them year after year.
Ryan: That – yeah, it really is. So, and when you did these numbers, did you go through the memory palace just like you talked about or do you have –
Ryan: – different –
Alex: Yeah, exactly.
Alex: So, so how I do it is I have, you know, for these things like numbers and cards people have, you know, Luis talked about this, they have systems to sort of translate numbers into objects or people or things that are images that you can remember, right. And so when I memorize I turn every 3-digit combination into an image. So for instance, if there’s a – if the, you know, if one sort of little sequence of numbers is 3-7-5-2-7-3. So break that into 3-7-5 and 2-7-3. 3-7-5 for me is Michael Jordan. So I’d imagine Michael Jordan. Then 2-7-3 is, like a – like a nuclear bomb going off. So maybe I’d be, you know, at my first locus in my memory palace and I’d just imagine Michael Jordan for whatever reason just like setting off a nuclear bomb and destroying that entire locus. You know what I mean?
Alex: And then so – and then I just go to the next one for the next set of 6, and the next one for the next set of 6. You know, ad nauseam until 3,000-something. So yeah, that’s just – that’s how it works.
Ryan: Awesome, awesome. Alex, where can our listeners get more of you?
Alex: You know, like I said my website’s mullenmemory.com, M-U-L-L-E-N memory.com. And, you know, I – there are other people out there but I’m, you know, sort of doing my best to address this sort of, this issue that I was talking about which is people don’t really have examples for applying memory techniques to learning. It’s just not really out there. And, you know, I’m sort of, you know, my wife and I are sort of trying to tackle that problem. And I, you know, I do think, having used these techniques now for 2 years in med school, it really – it makes a difference. And it’s not something that you need to be a world memory champion to do, it’s not something that you need to really train to memorize cards or numbers to do. You know, doing those things, you know, maybe one deck of cards a day may help you understand the techniques. But you really can get started right now if you just go to those, you know, go to the website, watch the tutorials. I think you should be able to get started using the techniques for yourself.
Ryan: Awesome. Now, before we let you go. We ask all of our guests this, you probably heard Luis answer it. We wanna know your top 3 tips to live optimal.
Ryan: From – from current world – memory world champion and future Dr. Mullen.
Alex: Yeah. Okay, so – so one of them I think is to – to recognize that a lot of barriers in life are just psychological. And so, you know, I was talking about the – how people, you know, in 15 years are just destroying the old world records for memory. You know, records that at the time people thought were close to unbeatable. People thought they were at the limits of human memory and here we are later just destroying them. And it just goes to show that those were psychological barriers. And I think the same is true for most things in life. People assume, you know, it’s a real – it’s a real limitation but a lot of times it’s just psychological. So just recognizing that, I think, is pretty important to being able to accomplish anything. So that would be number 1. And that’s really one of my, like, personally in my life one of the biggest takeaways I’ve gotten from my involvement with memory competitions.
Ryan: That’s awesome! I’m just gonna interrupt and nobody’s said anything like that on our show before. I love it!
Alex: [laughs] Good, great! So, and then another one would be – this is a more, kind of, specific thing. But to have a schedule, like a daily schedule. I mean, in my life, like, I think that’s a huge thing for me. Waking up at the same time every day, you know, having a schedule and being able to really know where your time is going. Just to make, you know, every day as efficient as possible. And something, you know, something I do to that end is – I’m not sure if you brought this up before but it’s called the Pomodoro technique. Which is basically just like, you know, it’s – it’s when I’m studying for school I’ll work for 25 minutes and I’ll just, you know, I can focus 100% for those 25 minutes, no distractions and then take a break for 5 minutes.
Alex: And then come back, do it again and just sort of repeat. And I think that really helps me to minimize distractions, minimize time, you know, just kind of surfing the web, going on Facebook, et cetera, et cetera.
Ryan: Yeah! I think –
Alex: And so that just kind of goes into the whole, you know –
Alex: – schedule sort of thing I was saying.
Ryan: We – we’ve got a blog post on Optimal Performance about that. I’ll put that link in the show notes. The way that – I’ve never – in the blog post it’s – it’s mentioned by the name Pomodoro but the way it was taught to me was just to work in bursts or – or kind of –
Alex: Yeah, yeah.
Ryan: – kind of chunks of time. So, for me I always do 50 minutes and then a 10 minute –
Ryan: So, it’s basically, you know, the same –
Alex: Yeah, similar.
Ryan: – the same ratio. Yeah.
Alex: Yeah, so that’s – so that’s number 2. And number 3, this is – this is something that I, like, I – I heard just like a few days ago but I think it’s very – I heard it on a podcast but it’s very, I think it’s very, kind of, profound is just to – just to say yes to things in your life. So I think, you know, that, you know, this was a monk, like a Buddhist monk, kind of talking about what his sort of secret to happiness is. And I think that’s something really interesting that a lot of people could just sort of easily apply to their lives. Just thinking, you know, just say yes to what’s going on, don’t try to fight things, don’t be annoyed by everything, don’t be frustrated, just kind of, you know, embrace what’s going on in life. I think that’s a, you know, something I obviously have to work on myself but it’s something that I think is a very, you know, relatively simple way you can sort of frame the way you live your life. Um, yeah.
Ryan: Alright, awesome. Alex, that was great. I’m gonna try something real fast. If I mess this up we’ll edit it out but –
Ryan: – it was carrot, rug, papers, fan, castle, rope, concept, star, van, sharp?
Alex: [click] Got it!
Ryan: Yeah! Alright.
Ryan: Alex, thanks for hanging out with us.
Alex: Yeah, it was fun.
Ryan: For everybody listening, thank you guys for tuning in. Make sure you head over to optimalperformance.com so you can see the video version of this, get the links and show notes. Alex shared with us a lot of really cool stuff to help us improve our memory and apply it to everyday life which is very important. Make sure you guys head over to iTunes as well, give us a 5* review, let us know how much you love the show. And thanks again for tuning in, we’ll catch you guys next Thursday!