Alex Mullen, a second-year medical student at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and son of Dr. Chris Mullen, civil engineering professor, became the first American to capture the overall title at the 24th World Memory Championships recently in Chengdu, China.
A memory athlete who entered the world of competitive memorization for the first time in 2014, the Oxford native was rewarded with approximately $40,000.
Team USA, led by Mullen, 22, took second place in the event, the highest showing for this country yet. Mullen’s teammates were Luis Angel, Nelson Dellis, Lance Tschirhart and Brad Zupp in the international contest that attracted around 278 competitors from 23 countries.
“We were all thrilled to be able to represent the U.S., and it feels great to be putting the America on the map in what has largely been a European-dominated sport, “Mullen said in comments emailed from China. “Hopefully, next year we can continue to push things even further and challenge for the overall title.”
The championships, held in the Jintang Hengda hotel in the province of Sichuan, challenged contestants in 10 different disciplines to memorize quickly and accurately such information as spoken numbers, playing cards, historic/future dates, binary numbers, random words, speed cards and more.
“It was an unbelievable three days for me,” Mullen said. “I feel incredibly lucky. I certainly didn’t expect to win. I knew that if I even wanted a chance at the title, I’d need to have the most perfect competition of my life.”
The scores of the participants were cumulative. Their opponents were the clock and each other.
Mullen took the overall title when he defeated frontrunner Marwin Wallonius of Sweden in a final speed-card clash.
“I was sitting in second behind Marwin until the 10th and final event, speed cards,” Mullen said. “And luckily, I managed a time that gave me the lead in the overall standings by just a hair.
“Competing against the top guys like Marwin and Simon Reinhard (of Germany) is always incredibly challenging, and both were incredibly strong throughout the year.”
Mullen achieved the highest overall score ever at a World Memory Championships since its inception in 1991, breaking one world record and five top U.S. scores He became the first person in the world to crack the 3,000-digit barrier in the hour numbers event when he recalled 3,029 digits within the allotted time.
Even before his trip to China, Mullen was ranked worldwide as a contestant, thanks to such feats as recalling the arrangement of a 52-card deck in under 29 seconds, committing to memory a series of 615 digits in order; memorizing 70 made-up “historical” dates in under five minutes and remembering the precise order of 102 digits – after hearing the sequence only once.
He could perform none of those feats, he said, until discovering as a college sophomore “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer. Subtitled “The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,” the book describes the world of competitive memorization.
In this country, that world is represented by the USA Memory Championship, patterned after the older World Memory Championships and founded in the late 1990s by Tony Dottino, at the time an IBM executive who had been searching for a way to restimulate employees’ creativity.
Mullen just wanted to stimulate his memory, adopting techniques from “Moonwalking” to shine up his school work and help him get into medical school.
“My memory improved pretty much instantly,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “Because I use the same kind of strategies in medical school, it’s like I’m cross-training for the memory competitions.”
This was going to be his “secret weapon,” he said. But, now, he shares it on his blog, http://www.alexjmullen.com. He couldn’t keep this to himself, or even to his classroom in Oxford, where he grew up and went to school.
“I got hooked, and I couldn’t stop,” he said.
Hooked on mnemonics, that is – in particular, a device known as the memory, or mind, palace, which taps into our talent for remembering context, or stories, better than we can isolated facts: You can fix anything in your mind by building a place in your imagination and furnishing it with images at certain points along the way.
Those images are connected to the numbers, names and faces, addresses, etc., you want to remember. To retrieve that information any time in the future, you stroll through your mental manse.
One of Mullen’s 20 or so memory palaces is his home in Oxford. In Gross Anatomy, for instance, he could have attached the brachial artery to his mailbox.
“This has definitely helped me in medical school,” Mullen has said. “Anything I need to memorize, such as the names of bacteria or drugs, I convert to images.”
During a demonstration at the Medical Center this fall, he revealed his skill with a playing deck, card by card: “This one’s Michael Jordan,” he said. “This is Gandalf, this is a particle accelerator like the one in Switzerland, this is Sparky – a guy I know” and so on. He then put Michael Jordan by the door, Gandalf on the table … you get the picture.
The mnemonics vary somewhat, depending on the task. To connect a name with a face, Mullen offers his as an example: Owl for “Al,” licks for “lex.” He wears glasses: “Owl licking my glasses.”
No wonder his name is becoming unforgettable among his rivals. In 2014, he plunged into the USA Memory Championship for the first time, finishing second.
“I always liked competition. In high school, it was swimming and tennis,” he said. “This is another way to compete, to push myself to do more and more.”
He reached the national finals again this year, then placed fourth at the 2015 Extreme Memory Tournament, which drew memory mavens from around the world to San Diego in May. Mullen won $4,000.
Now he’s milking his skill outside the arena and the classroom as well, taking on the task of learning Chinese, because he can.
It’s serving him well during his time in China, a journey he decided to take after his marriage this summer to Cathy Chen, a fellow second-year medical student who has relatives in Taiwan. The two took their finals early in order to be able to make the trip.
“It is kind of a second honeymoon,” he said, shortly before departing.
In a way, Mullen is wedded to this cerebral sport as well. “At this point, I almost feel like I can’t stop,” he said. “The more I compete, the more I want to do it.”