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Provided by John Graham
John Graham, second from left, sits on stage before the 2018 USA Memory Championship on July 14, 2018. Thirteen competitors participated in the championship, including previous champions.

SALT LAKE CITY — John Graham, a Salt Lake City resident, used to be terrible with names.

He’d learn names in a group setting and immediately forget them. He would avoid calling people by their first names because he couldn't remember them.

That all changed for Graham about four years ago, when he read a book called “Moonwalking With Einstein” and began practicing memorization techniques. To say he's come a long way since then is something of an understatement: Graham took first place in the 2018 USA Memory Championship in July of this year.

Provided by John Graham
John Graham, a Salt Lake City resident, poses with the seahorse trophy from the 2018 USA Memory Championship. Thirteen competitors participated in the championship, including previous champions.

To qualify for the championship, Graham memorized 181 names and faces in 15 minutes. For just one of the four events, he spent the month leading up to the competition memorizing the periodic table and six facts about each element, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Academy Awards winners by year.

Although his memory may seem superhuman — he even appeared on the television show “Superhuman” last year — Graham insists memory is a skill anyone can learn with training and practice. With that thought in mind, he shared four easy memorization techniques with the Deseret News.

1. Never forget another name

According to Graham, this memorization technique has been the most useful in his day-to-day life. As a substitute teacher, Graham meets 30 new students per class hour, and he can memorize all their names by the time he’s done taking attendance.

So what’s the secret?

When you first meet someone new, Graham said, you need to turn their name into an image or something else the name brings to mind. For example, if you meet someone named Liz, you can imagine a lizard. If you meet someone named Emma, you can think of M&M’s.

Then, pick a defining facial feature and link it with the image you’ve come up with.

“If Liz has curly hair, imagine a lizard crawling through her curly hair and the reaction she would have to that,” Graham said. “Or if Emma has freckles, imagine that her freckles are turning into M&M’s or her freckles are chocolate from the M&M’s. Just sort of link them together like that, and the name should stick pretty well.”

Graham connects the name José with a garden hose, Janet with a janitor, Mark with a marker, Jenny with a penny and Matt with a welcome mat.

2. Remember anniversaries and birthdays without Facebook’s help

Similar to memorizing names, Graham suggests using images and stories to remember important dates, like anniversaries and birthdays. He has a complex number system that helps him link numbers with consonants and create words, but for the beginners, he suggests incorporating aspects of the date with a mental story.

One example Graham gave was memorizing your friend’s birthday on April 23. To remember the month, April, you can think of a rain shower (“April showers bring May flowers”). To remember the day, 23, you can imagine Michael Jordan, the famous basketball player who wore number 23 on his jersey.

“So you attach the image of your friend, the image for April which is a rain shower, and the image for 23 which is Michael Jordan, and just create a little story,” Graham said. “Maybe Michael Jordan is giving her a birthday gift or something. That’s kind of a fun way to do that.’”

3. Memorize information to prepare for exams

According to Graham, the principal memory technique is what he calls the journey method, which is also called the Roman room, the method of loci or, if you recall Benedict Cumberbatch in "Sherlock," the memory palace method.

Essentially, you need to imagine a place you know extremely well, like your house, and mentally place information you need to remember with images throughout the place.

If you’re trying to memorize the presidents, Graham said, you can start by imagining a loud, rumbling washing machine outside your front door to memorize George Washington as the first president.

As you progress into your house, the next location may be a counter or desk. Then you can imagine Thing, the disembodied hand from the television show “The Addams Family,” on the desk to remember John Adams was the second president, and so on.

To recall the information, you mentally go back through your house, or whichever location you’ve chosen, and remember the images you’ve created.

“A lot of it’s just creative storytelling,” Graham said. “The crazier, the better, actually. Your memory really remembers crazy imagery better than just a mundane picture of something. You just let your mind run wild and just create a story about something that you’re learning.”

4. Remember the errands you need to run

The final memorization technique, which can help you remember to run errands, also includes imagining vivid images.

Maybe you need to remember to pick up milk and eggs on the way home from work, Graham said. The first step is to imagine the next place you’ll be. In this example, you would imagine walking out to your car.

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“Sit there for 20 seconds and imagine yourself walking out to your car later, and you open your door, and your whole front seat is just soaked in spoiled milk,” Graham said. “And then, you turn around and someone is standing there laughing at you, and they’re throwing eggs at you as you drive away.”

According to Graham, it’s important to make the mental story details as vivid as possible. Let yourself feel the emotion behind the story and experience all the smells, sights and sounds that would exist if the story were real.