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How to remember faces, names and more: Tips from the world memory champion

Alex Mullen can memorize the order of a deck of cards or recall the sequence of 3,000 digits. He's convinced you could be as good as him.
/ Source: TODAY

Alex Mullen can memorize the order of a deck of cards in seconds. Give him an hour, and he’ll know the sequence of 3,000 digits by heart. Ask him to match the names of 100 strangers to their photos? No problem.

He doesn’t have a photographic memory and he’s convinced you could be as good as he is — with the proper training.

Alex Mullen
World memory champion Alex Mullen.Courtesy Alex Mullen

“I don’t think I’m especially naturally talented at memory by any means,” Mullen told TODAY. “What I am good at is being consistent about my training and diligent about trying to consistently improve.”

At 24, the medical student at the University of Mississippi is the first American to win the World Memory Championships, held in China last year, and he’s the current champ of the USA Memory Championship, held in Hershey, Pennsylvania, last month.

The success is still all a bit new. If you had told Mullen a few years ago that he’d be able to memorize decks of cards or recall thousands of numbers, he would have said “not a chance,” he noted.

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His quest to improve his memory began as a way to make school work easier. As a college undergraduate, Mullen came across “Moonwalking with Einstein,” a chronicle of author Joshua Foer’s efforts to learn memory techniques. After about a year of practicing the same methods, Mullen began trying out his new skills in competitions.

To keep his skills sharp, he trains about an hour a day with various drills and exercises. After hearing that blueberries can boost memory, Mullen tries to eat them regularly, but otherwise doesn’t pay attention to “brain foods.”

Related: Brain food is real: Study shows how diet affects memory as we age

There are two essential skills for improving memory, he said:

  • being able to focus
  • and assigning meaning to abstract things, like words or numbers.

“You take what you want to remember and turn it into some sort of crazy image or visual or thing you can see mentally,” Mullen said. “Often times, that means creating some sort of very creative, funny, interesting story.”

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Here are his tips:

Remembering names

When you meet someone new, try to find something distinctive about that person, whether it’s their hair, facial feature or disposition. Then, immediately turn their name into an image that interacts with that feature.

His examples are a little unusual, but stay with us.

If Mullen were to meet a woman named Alice who has curly hair, he might imagine lice in her curly hair — making the connection between “Alice” and “lice.”

“It’s a gross image, but that’s the point. It’s memorable,” he said.

If Mullen were to meet someone named Doug who has a large nose, he might imagine a miniature person with a shovel digging around Doug’s nose — connecting “Doug” and “digging.”

Someone who has bushy eyebrows and is named Willie might inspire Mullen to imagine a miniature “Free Willie” jumping from one eyebrow and landing on top of the other.

“Somebody’s name has pretty much no meaning, it’s an abstract word. You can give that name a meaning by creating some sort of image and attaching it to that person,” Mullen said. “It’s all about just trying to be a little creative.”

Related: Love your brain: 5 ways to protect your memory

Remembering numbers

If you need to memorize a long number, like a credit card number or phone number, take it three digits or so at a time. It makes it easier for the brain to handle.

Then, parse out some meaning or pattern from the little chunks, Mullen advised.

If the number contains 007, you may want to think of James Bond.

For 824, you might note that eight divided by two is four.

A number like 1994 may remind you of a relative’s birth year, and so on.

Once you’ve assigned meaning to the little pieces, put them together to remember the whole sequence.

Remembering dates

Again, tie the date to a visual process.

If you need to remember something happening in February, you might tie it to Valentine’s Day or to love, assigning it the image of a heart.

If you have a doctor’s appointment in July, imagine sitting in your doctor’s office and feeling extremely hot as a way to tie it to a hot summer month.

Remembering where you left something

Forgetting where you left your keys or parked your car after a busy day at work is usually a focus issue.

Cars, Parking lot
Dude, where's my car? You'll find it faster if when you park, you remember it's near a light pole, for example, and the light pole is falling on it.Shutterstock

How to never lose your car in a parking lot again:

Before you leave your car, stand outside it for a moment.

Count to five and take stock of where you are. That will force you to focus.

Think of a striking visual image involving the parking spot.

If you’re parked next to light post, for example, imagine it falling on your car. That striking visual will help you remember that spot.

To remember where your keys are:

When you leave your keys somewhere, imagine them being very hot and melting through the table, perhaps falling on the floor.

It’s a creative way to focus where you left them.

How to create a mind palace

This may be a familiar concept if you’re a fan of “Sherlock” with Benedict Cumberbatch.

People are naturally very good at remembering spaces, so an important memory technique is to create your own mind palace, Mullen said.

Imagine any physical space or location you’re familiar with, like your house, childhood home, work place, or old elementary school.

When you need to remember a list of numbers or words, assign them visual images and place those images in each room. To recall, imagine walking through your mind palace and collecting those items from the rooms.

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