By Matthew Makowski
Alumnus John Graham can memorize an 80-digit number in 40 seconds, a list of 70 random words in five minutes, and 148 names and faces in 15 minutes. If he walked into a room filled with 100 people and met them all, he could remember all of their names.
Graham’s photographic memory is what some would call a “superpower,” and he will put his ability to the test when he competes on FOX’s new television series, “Superhuman.”
Graham, ’09, will compete on the first episode of the series, which airs Monday, June 12, at 9 p.m. EST.
In each episode, five seemingly ordinary people use their extraordinary skills to compete for the opportunity to win $50,000. The competition is judged by panelists Mike Tyson, Christina Milian, and brain surgeon and neuroscientist Rahul Jandial.
During the premiere episode, a group of people jog past Graham. His challenge is to memorize the names and random five-digit numbers each person is wearing, and then repeat them back to the show’s host, actor Kal Penn.
What makes Graham’s ability additionally superhuman is the fact that he taught himself how to have a photographic memory by reading a book on memory techniques in 2014, called “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer.
“The book talked about competitions where ordinary people tried to memorize the most numbers, cards, words or names. What shocked me is that none of the competitors had photographic memories,” said Graham, a native of Three Rivers. “They had all trained their memories with different techniques. I had always thought you were either born with a good memory, or you weren’t.”
Graham said he quickly learned how to memorize a shuffled deck of cards in about six minutes after a week of practicing the techniques. Now, he can perform the feat in about one minute.
“Most people would think that memory training would be boring and make their brain hurt, but the techniques are all about visualization and creativity. It’s actually really stimulating,” he said.
During his challenge on the show, Graham said his strategy involved taking the task one step at a time.
“When I was training in the weeks leading up to the show, I just kept telling myself, ‘You can absolutely do this; just stay focused.’ I tried really hard to tell myself that when the cameras were rolling, but the pressure of 400 people staring at me made it a lot harder than my practice sessions.”
Competing on “Superhuman” isn’t the first time Graham has tested his enhanced memory on a grand stage. In 2014, he competed in the World Memory Championships in China. A few months later, he competed in the 2015 USA Memory Championship in New York City and earned a 6th-place ranking.
“That’s when I really knew I was onto something,” said Graham, who currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his fiancée.
Graham’s road to competing on “Superhuman” began in 2016 when the show aired a special episode.
“I knew two memory contestants on that episode, and one of them actually won the whole thing,” recalled Graham, who majored in liberal studies with an emphasis in politics and public policy at Grand Valley. “I thought, ‘If he can do it, so can I.’”
A few months later, that contestant posted on Facebook that the show was searching for people with superhuman talents, so Graham applied.
While he can’t divulge details about the results of the episode, Graham said he enjoyed being treated like a celebrity on the set.
The producers, crew and judges were all very uplifting and encouraging throughout the experience,” Graham said. “When the van came for me and the other contestants at the airport, we felt like we were the X-Men or the Avengers gathering to save the day with our superpowers.”
Graham is currently in the final stages of completing a memory course that he will use to teach people how to have a “superhuman” memory similar to his. The course is available at memoryjohn.com. He also hopes to engage audiences interested in having enhanced memories through future public speaking opportunities.