Acting! Sense Memory and Emotional Memory

by Mark Westbrook

Sense Memory and Emotional Recall (also known as Affective Memory) are closely related ideas in the theory of acting. These two terms are primarily connected to the Stanislavski School of acting and those schools that have derived themselves from Stanislavski’s systematic approach to acting and actor training. These schools each have points of divergence with Stanislavski’s own ideas; this is what has given those schools their own slant on Stanislavski’s work and their own identity. It is not helpful to adjudge these schools as more or less true to Stanislavski, only acknowledge their relationship. It is often the case that Stanislavski-related acting terminology has slightly varying meaning and application from school to school as the methodology changes, transforms, and evolves.

Sense Memory is a training tool that helps to develop the dramatic imagination or what Stanislavski referred to as ‘Creative Fantasy’. The ability to create a ‘sense of truth’ around the make-believe circumstances of the play is an essential skill for the Stanislavski trained actor. In Sense Memory exercises, the actor trains their imagination to respond to the memory of their five senses. Using the actor’s memory, the aim is to connect the imagination to the memory of the real sense. It is claimed that the actor who does not use Sense Memory only pretends or indicates through representation that they are cold. It is claimed therefore that the actor using Sense Memory can recreate, relive or re-experience that cold sensation and therefore their acting is more truthful. In other word connecting real sensations to a pretend scenario can help the actor to experience the make believe world of the play as real.

Our senses do not work equally well as triggers for the recall of specific memories. Whilst our sense of smell is the most powerfully connected to our memory, touch, taste sight and hearing may each affect an individual differently. Finding the sense that most strongly triggers a response is part of the Sense Memory training.

Have you ever been hungry and the thought of a cheeseburger, or some other food has caused your mouth to water? The connection between a real cheeseburger and the memory of the taste, smell, sight of a cheeseburger from you past creates a real response in you. This is because the human mind is highly suggestible. This suggestibility can be employed by the actor to create truthful reactions to remembered stimulus.

Psychologists call this S-R Theory, Stimulus-Response Theory. The most famous example of how S-R Theory works in practice will give you a better idea of how sense memory can work. The Nobel Prize winning psychologist Dr Ivan Pavlov developed his famous S-R experiment with dogs whilst investigating an unrelated digestive matter. He would feed the dogs every day at the same time but noticed that if he entered the room with the dogs at any other time, they would salivate as if they were about to be fed. Pavlov posited that the dogs were responding to the white lab coat that he wore and their salivation was occurring as a direct result of this. He then set up an exercise where he would ring a bell during the feeding of the dogs. After a while, the dogs would salivate on just the sound of the bell. This type of response to stimulus is called conditioning. Both humans and animals can be conditioned to respond to stimulus. Stanislavski was aware of Pavlov but was most influenced by another S-R psychologist named Theodule Ribot whose theories support Stanislavski’s work on Emotion Memory.

By training the actor in Sense Memory, Stanislavski believed that their capacity to treat the imaginary world as if it were real would be increased and honed. Furthermore, he believed that a flexible and malleable sense of creative fantasy could assist the actor in connecting deeply to their stored emotions. Sense Memory trains the actor to treat their sense memories as real and use them within the Emotional Recall exercise to stimulate or trigger certain truthful emotional responses.

Jean Benedetti, the foremost British scholar on Stanislavski suggests in his book Stanislavski and the Actor the following Sense Memory exercises to try:

SIGHT: Picture the following:

    A house where you once lived or visited

  • A starry sky
  • One of the most famous buildings that you ever visited
  • Your Mother’s face in detail

SOUND: Hear the following:

  • Rain against a window pane
  • The buzzing of a bee
  • A dog barking
  • Feet crunching on snow

SMELL: Smell the following:

  • The Sea
  • An Apple, Orange or Lemon
  • Smoke from a wood fire
  • Bacon

TASTE: Taste in your mouth

  • Roast Chicken
  • Chocolate
  • Butter
  • Milk

TOUCH: Imagine the feel of:

  • Stroking a cat or a dog
  • Hot tea on your tongue
  • The surface of a wet fish
  • Taking a hot shower

Developing the dramatic imagination in this way helps the actor to believe in the make believe world of the play with more investment. The culmination of this work is to combine the five senses together.

During Sense Memory, the actor develops their capacity to recall actual experience. It is possible that the actor will sit with a cup of coffee in their hands. They will note for themselves the taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight sensations that are produced from quietly taking in the coffee. In a later session, the actor will recall these senses from memory and again note their real responses. Exponents of Sense Memory claim that through constant practise, it is possible to recall strong sense-led memories and use these to develop the dramatic imagination, the dramatic sense of truth and real emotion.

The next stage is to use what you have learned in your Sense Memory training to assist you in recalling REAL events or occurrences. No memory should be forced, the mind is suggestible but it refuses to be function at will.

Try to recall a simple memory, keep it simple, not dramatic. Whilst you are recalling the memory, work your way through your senses, filling in as much detail as possible. As stimulus for this work, recall:

  • A highly enjoyable party
  • Something that made you very angry
  • When you felt ashamed
  • When you felt you were poorly treated by someone
  • When something made you joyful

Emotional Recall aims to help the actor to connect to their own feelings and emotions. The technique of Emotion Recall (also known by Stanislavski was Emotion Memory) is the most highly controversial aspect of Stanislavski’s work and was made even more controversial as it has come to be the fulcrum of the Stanislavski off-shoot known as ‘the Method’. In the Method, this exercise is referred to as Affective Memory.

In an emotional memory exercise, the actor first seats themselves and uses Relaxation techniques in order to reduce any physical, mental or emotional tension. The next stage is to begin performing some simple Sense Memory work and then to turn that work towards the chosen memory of a moment from the actor’s life. Strasberg advised that the memory should be at least seven years old so that it’s rawness did not distract the actor from their task. The actor must choose a moment to remember that is analogous with the emotion that the character is experiencing.

It is important to know that despite the massive emphasis on the production of emotion from real truthful memories, Stanislavski did not insist that the stimulus was actually experienced by the actor first hand. If you had cried when you saw the planes ploughing into the World Trade Center Towers, this was probably not experienced in New York, but your response to it was really experienced.

It is finally essential to note that Stanislavski all but gave up his use of Emotion Memory in the final stages of his work. He felt that the work was exhausting to actors and that it produced negative side-effects such as tension and hysteria. He opted to focus his work on physical action as he believed that this would provide a more solid basis for the actor’s work, rather than the ‘fickleness of emotion’.

To make a summary of these ideas:

In order to act under the imaginary circumstances of the script, it is important for the Stanislavski trained actor to develop faith in their sense of dramatic truth. They must be able to believe in the imaginary factors of the play in order to react truthfully on stage with true feeling. Sense Memory is used to assist in the recall of real past occurrences and in turn this is employed in the performance of the Emotional Recall exercises.


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Professional Acting Coach and Director

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