How to Develop Your Sense Memory

Posted on 8 August 2016



Sense memory is a concept used by everyone even loosely involved with method acting: Stanislavski, Strasberg, Meisner, Adler – the list goes on. It’s a core exercise used in affective memory, or emotional recall, but no matter your terminology or whose acting methods you subscribe to, it’s sense memory that is the key to a truthful performance.

This is because good actors don’t just act; they do. Your job is to feel on demand – much more difficult than just crying on cue. Presenting strong emotions when asked is hard to recreate even after overcoming any problems with public performance. Being emotionally expressive in any way is a full-body issue, and actors who get criticised as weak are often picked on because they’re unable to seem authentic during emotional displays. Thankfully, sense memory is here to help you level up from basic crocodile tears.


Where to Use It

Sense memory is part of affective memory, which in itself is one the most important techniques in a method actor’s toolbox. Affective memory is the art of manipulating your own experiences to create a truthful emotional performance of a character. Sense memory is how you discover the particulars of that manipulation. It helps an actor to recall the details of their past experiences so that they feel “in the moment”.

Some people have trouble separating out which part of the affective memory exercise is sense memory, and how then to apply it to a performance. Here’s a break down of the process:

  • You’ve been asked to recall the feeling of heartbreak, and remember that you were once dumped in a coffee shop. It’s fresh in your mind, and poignant – you know you will have a good emotional object trigger in there somewhere! This is your affective memory.
  • Once you have your affective memory, you use sense memory by running through the memory’s setting, sounds, etc… When you come to the smell of roasting coffee beans, you feel a small stab in your heart; you’ve found your emotional release object.
  • When you later rehearse or perform the scene and must display heartbreak, don’t fall back into the memory as a whole; just recall the smell of roasted coffee beans and let your subconscious guide your performance.

Although we’re unaware of it in our day-to-day lives, every memory we form is done so through our senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound. Usually when we recall an event, it’s using one or two of these (predominantly sight and sound). However, if we’re properly engrossed in the memory then all five senses become a part of it.

An example of how sense memory makes a difference during performance is seen in the example of acting cold. A basic technique would be mimicking the typically ‘cold’ behaviours: blowing on your hands, chattering your teeth, and shivering. An actor using sense memory would recall a time they really were cold, and all the small reactions: pulling a hat down over your ears, thrusting your hands into your crotch or armpits; moving stiffly, because your muscles are constantly tensing to stay warm.

This is very much part of the method’s basis: psychological realism. Psychological realism demands that the actor truly feel what is scripted, and so recreating every single component of a memory is vital to having a detailed truth. Acting should be more than simply imagination could achieve.


Why it Works

The theory is that one can recreate an emotion based on past experiences, and thereby express it with truthfulness.

The use of all five sense in recalling the memory not only helps to paint a full picture; it is also the best way to find your emotional release object. It could be the ticking of a clock, or the smell of a retirement home, but for each memory there is a subconscious, sense-based ‘key’ that will flood into your mind everything to do with the emotion you’re trying to evoke.

Sense memory is a powerful tool, but one that must go hand-in-hand with mindfulness or relaxation exercises. You need to be able to control your emotional state at all times, otherwise sense memory could be mentally damaging. If you find that a particular memory engrosses you to the point of taking you out of the scene, you might have to revert to the less-powerful technique of imagination.

Once you have gone through the senses and found your emotional release object, you will be able to recall and enact that particular emotion with increasing ease.


How to Use It

Think of sense memory as an exercise: it trains your emotions to burst forth at will. By thinking of it this way you will be less surprised by any difficulty you have initially – and later, more understanding of those ‘highly-strung’ actors! The exercise goes something like this:

  • Sit in an armless chair, and loosen every part of your body so you’re draped, almost corpse-like, on the furniture. If you’re sensing any tenseness, try moaning or yelling.
  • Once at ease, recall your chosen memory. Walk through each sense at a time, recalling every single sight, every sound, and so on. Take as long as you need to find it – going through every sensation in the memory could take a while!
  • Once you’ve found it, let the accompanying emotion take over you so you’re able to remember every reaction you had in the moment.

We suggest doing one sense memory exercise per day; this should help you train your emotional responses without overloading them.

If you master sense memory, you will be able to perform any emotion on command, and lose the awkwardness of evoking high drama during auditions – or in every day life! Actors with a strong sense of memory capability often become highly empathetic, which helps them to grow their range and their network; empaths are much more likeable, after all.

Do you have plenty of memories to draw on? A vivid imagination? You could benefit from refining it with our Ultimate Acting Programme. Applications for the October intake are nearly closed – apply now!


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