Sources and Methods #26: Alex Mullen


Alex Mullen 101:

Alex’s Website

Alex’s Twitter Feed

Alex's YouTube channel

The Man Who Thinks Like Sherlock Holmes - BBC Profile


Show Notes:

3:14 (On where it all started) I read the techniques (in Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking With Einstein) and I was hooked enough, and thought I really want to apply these to my learning life. A lot of people try to market these techniques as a way to improve your daily life, and there are some areas where you can use the techniques to learn things like languages. But to be honest, there’s not a whole lot of benefit. In my mind, it’s not like going from no techniques to using them has a whole lot of benefit to your daily life.

4:55 - My main interest is using these techniques for learning. I read the book, started practicing. I read a book by Dominic O’brien and took it forward from there.

8:25 - In terms of learning, it really took me a long time. I started in March 2013, when I was a junior in college, and it wasn’t until towards the end of my senior year that I started to apply the techniques and failed, and gave up on it, but came back to it when med school started, there’s so much stuff to memorize for med school. So it was nearing two years of exposure to the techniques before I felt that I was using them effectively.

11:02 - What you have to do if you want to make the techniques work is make them as simple as possible. Making memory palaces, struggling to convert information into images, it feels like it’s taking extra time.

12:14 - I wouldn’t say my natural memory has improved at all, it’s not like I remember where my car keys are all the time. But I would say my visualization skill has improved. Maybe not even in the sense of visualizing them more clearly, but more comfortable dipping into visualizing something. Being comfortable visualizing, that’s a transferrable skill.

14:03 (On Memorizing a deck of cards) I memorize card pairs and put them into an image. So I have over 1,000 images - random people, objects, characters from TV shows. So what I’m doing is seeing these people and those objects interact in the locus of the memory palace.

19:02 - Review, even if you’re using memory techniques, is pretty essential.

22:15 - One of the most important things is to not try to memorize everything. I think it’s a fairly common trap people run into.

24:00 - I use Anki pretty much for everything.

30:00 - For medical school, it’s all video podcasts for the most part, and what I do is take notes with Anki. And then I keep reviewing everything inside Anki from there on out.

34:40 - (On learning Chinese) I have a very systematic approach to this (in contrast to learning Spanish). The problem for me was that it’s too different from English. The idea, generally, is you take an English word that sounds like the foreign word and that’s your image for that foreign word. The problem with Chinese is you end up having… problems dealing with tonal nuances. The nice thing of Chinese is that since everything is one syllable, there’s a fixed number of ways you can start out a word and a fixed number of ways you can end that syllable. So the way it works is I have a character assigned to each of the starts, and then a place assigned to each of the ending sounds…. That sounds like a very complicated process, and it is, and it’s taken me a decent amount of practice to get fluent at doing that. I don’t know if I would’ve been up for that before doing competitions.

39:06 - One thing doing memory sports has definitely taught me is that a lot of barriers are psychological. It’s akin to Roger Bannister running the four minute mile for the first time, and within a short time, everyone was running four minute miles.

For me, trying to break plateaus has always been about trying to identify the key skill that needs to be improved, that’s holding you back. A lot of the time for me, for really anything system based, the key skill has been going as quickly as possible from information to an image. Realizing that so many things are psychological just changes your perspective.

44:04 - Learning how to learn is not really taught in school at all. That seems like a pretty huge oversight. Just giving kids the knowledge that you can imagine things like a giant sumo breaking down a tree, if that helps you learn, go for it.

48:43 - I think competitive sports is something that helps me. For most of my life, I was doing some kind of competitive sport, mainly swimming and tennis. I think that’s one of the main things that drew me to memory sports - like it or not, it is a sport, you’re training, you’re trying to get better at something, and the attraction of physical sports is still there with memory sports. Break milestones, it feels like a mental challenge you can work towards accomplishing.

50:39 - Every day I spent a few minutes running through a constricted deck of Anki cards for memory sports. That’s a daily training routine. For memory sports, I have a weekly schedule that I try to stick to. Usually it’s not much more than 30 minutes or so. For Spanish, I’m also using Duolingo. I’m also making my way through a Memrise course. Anki practice for medicine and memory sports. Those are my daily things.


Alex Mullen’s Book:

Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer

Matt’s Pick:

The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle

Alex Mullen’s Film:


Alex’s Pick:

Harass Alex about learning Kanji

Alex Mullen’s Music:

The Brainfood Playlist on Spotify