Emotional Recall vs. Sense Memory | StageMilk

Emotional Recall vs. Sense Memory

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Emotional Recall? Sense Memory? What are they? When do you need to use it? And more importantly, why would you need to use it?

I’m an actor by trade and I’ve had both positive and negative experiences working with Emotional Recall, and it’s all dependent on two factors: the acting teacher or coach who was running the room, and my level of experience with the technique at the time. I’ll take you through an actor’s perspective (rather than an acting coach’s perspective) on what it is, when I’ve used it, and when I think is the right time to use it. I’ll also go into a little bit of the way the world looked at emotion and mental health around the time of its creation, just to give you an idea of its historical context. Buckle up for an emotional recall bonanza!

What is Emotional Recall? 

Emotional Recall, also called affective memory, and not to be confused with Sense Memory, is an essential part of Constantin Stanislavski’s method. Stanislavski’s pedagogy is tight and was the backbone of the acting training I undertook for three years at drama school. Almost everything I know and rely on to help me break down a script, understand given circumstances, subtext, character motivation – the works – stems from the Stanislavski method in one way or another. Emotional recall, specifically, is the process of recalling a personal memory similar to that of your character in a particular scene in order to help you empathise on a personal level with the character.  

What is Sense Memory?  

Sense Memory was developed by Lee Strasberg and focuses on recalling the senses surrounding a memory from a particular moment in your life. What did you see, smell, hear, taste or touch/feel at the time? Thereby inducing a sensory state similar to that of your character, and in turn, depicting ‘real life’ on stage. Strasberg recommends using memories that are more than 7 years old. It’s also not noted as to exactly which year it was created but is likely to have been sometime between 1931 when he formed the Group Theatre and 1948 when he became Artistic Director of The Actors Studio in 1948.

Why Do Actors Use Emotional Recall and Sense Memory?

When we use all of our senses, the work appears to be much more lived in, embodied and responsive. It just looks great. Whenever I see anyone working from the head only and ignoring the wealth of creative expression and storytelling that comes from the body, it’s not always their best work. We’ve all heard it before; acting coaches since time immemorial have been saying ‘get into your body’ and ‘get out of your head’. And they’re not wrong, and emotional recall and sense memory for me have been some of the best tools to help me get there – when done properly. And when I use these techniques, not only does the work feel easier to do, it also becomes a hell of a lot more interesting and exciting to perform. And my theory is when a performance looks at ease and lived in, the audience feels more relaxed. When they see me ‘working’ they’ll feel tense. I swear to god you can feel it in the room.

When trying out Emotional Recall for yourself, remember there is a wide scale of the intensity of emotions you can choose to delve into. Recalling a time you felt genuine loss and injustice could be as simple as remembering being three years old and being told you have to leave the park when you don’t want to go. Have you seen that before? It’s huge. Their entire world as they know it falls apart and it’s quite something to behold. A common act of defiance, yes, but it’s an experience and feeling of deep loss and injustice nonetheless. This example exists more as a ‘Magic If’ when applied to a scene and most-likely not very emotionally traumatic for the rationality of the adult brain.

I’ll outline some exercises that I have worked with to help me use these techniques later.  

But first…

A Bit of Historical Context

The exact year that Stanislavski’s system was created is also not known. But there’s evidence of its existence as early as 1905 in Stanislavski’s letters to actor Vera Kotlyarevskaya. Let me give you a brief idea as to where-the-blinking-hell the world was at with psychological knowledge around that time. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, had just published his book Studies on Hysteria in 1895. Spiritual wellbeing was hugely important, but mental health was not part of the general lexicon or a fundamental element in the formation of our overall well being. 

Psychological study and analysis were not even considered legitimate research in the medical world, but more a woo-woo type of European hippy smack-talk. Depression or Melancholia was still considered a form of insanity, and asylums had only just decided to start addressing people as patients instead of inmates. We were yet to discover the full effects that shell shock was to have on military personnel returning from WW1 – and the subsequent PTSD that would define a generation of men and women alike. The Stanislavski method was created at this time. And we were still roughly 80 years off formalizing cognitive behavioural therapy as a supplement for, or to complement, psychiatric drugs. 

We still have a long way to go, but compared to the turn of the 20th century our understanding of ourselves and our emotional health is vastly different, and we are thankfully in a much more enlightened era for it. We have advanced to a better understanding of human psychology, and we should use that to modify these somewhat dated practices.

This is not to deter you in any way from exploring Emotional Recall and Sense Memory for yourself with your work, quite the opposite. Rather this is for you to be fully aware of exactly how far we’ve come in understanding how our emotions connected to memory can have a direct effect on our mental wellbeing – if not used with consideration, caution and a deep awareness of oneself. If you are using Emotional Recall and Sense Memory to help you explore a scene, you must mindfully choose which parts of your own life are worth using. And equally, when enough is enough for you.


When to use Emotional Recall and Sense Memory

There are times where you’ve hit the pace of the scene, you’ve hit beat changes, you’ve got a strong inner monologue, you understand the stakes but there’s just something missing. I feel like this when there are just no guts to it, or I haven’t yet broken the back of the scene or I’ve hit the bones but I’m not yet down to the marrow of it. These are the moments when I’ve used sense memory and emotional recall effectively I’ve been able to find that marrow. And the scene begins to feel slightly more electric and alive.

For example; there was a time when I was rehearsing a play and I had a particular scene that my character was driving, and I had to give another character some horrific news that would affect the course of the rest of their life. The run we’d done before was fine, it was ok and the shape was there. But I knew in my bones that I could be giving my fellow actor who had to receive and respond to the information a lot more to work with. This in turn would make their job a whole lot easier, and we could both exist in the scene in a more exciting way. 

We had time for one more run so I asked for a moment before we began again. I went to the side of the stage, closed my eyes, took four deep breaths and recalled a memory where I had to break news to my own friend that would in turn change their life. I remembered how long I thought about it that day, what my breathing was like walking to their house, the feeling in my chest, the smell of the ferns in the front yard, and the jelly-like feeling in my knees (where the anticipation accumulated), the dryness in my mouth, the anxiety about how my friend would react and if I would then react appropriately, the actual feeling of not knowing what to do with my hands, and then the weird sense of calm I tried to exude that only went one layer of skin deep. I stopped there, opened my eyes and started the scene.  

This took all but 20 seconds, I embodied these sensations and focussed on the other actor: curious as to how their character would respond. The shift felt subtle, yet enormous at the same time and after that, we agreed we could call it a night on that scene. Myself, the other actor and the director all agreed that we’d now broken the back of the scene. 

Purists would argue I was using a bastardized blend of both emotional recall and sense memory here: but this is the best example of when these techniques have worked for me. In rehearsal, tailored to what I needed at the time and in the spirit of exploration.

When Not to Use It: Safety

If a director, acting teacher or coach is asking you to access an emotionally or physically traumatic personal memory that you don’t want to delve into, even a little bit, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DO IT. and if you start and don’t feel safe midway through something you

safety for actors

No if’s or no but’s. There should be no questions about it. The person running the room should never put any pressure on you or anyone else to continue with the exploration or scene. And that should be the end of it. All that is required from you is to say “I don’t want to go into that today because I don’t feel safe doing it. I’d rather find another way into this that requires more imaginative exploration today. Thanks”. If you don’t feel safe, you don’t do it. And I’m all about people feeling safe while they work in any job, end of story…

Let’s say for example you’ve been tasked to recall a feeling of loss and injustice attached to a memory that is extremely similar to that of the character we’re playing. The memory you’re recalling is recent, unresolved and was a deeply traumatic experience – then my friend we’re headed into a dark cave. And if you’re going in there with not a lot of battery left in your torch, then you run the risk of your torch going out when you’re in the depths of that cave. And should that happen, you’ll find yourself stuck in a place you really don’t want to be. Trying to find your way out on your hands and knees in total darkness is scary and can take a long time. It can take hours, days, weeks, months in my experience, and even years for some people.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no play or film in the world worth experiencing that very insidious place for. And from a punter’s point of view, that experience is not accounted for in the ticket price. The pursuit of emotional truth is a worthy one, and an important one for our empathetic development as people in a world becoming increasingly polarised in our views. But also, at the end of the day, that pursuit is not. Worth. Wrecking. Yourself. For. There’s also a financial risk there. I very much doubt this director or coach will be fronting the money for your psychology bills. 

I won’t stand for a coach, teacher or director telling any actor or even insinuating to them that they’re not a brave performer for refusing to dig into their personal trauma. If anyone tells you that, then that person is speaking from the voice of an outdated stigma attached to mental health. It’s insensitive, it’s bullshit and unprofessional. If that happens to you in any setting, professional or not, that is called shaming someone for not wanting to work in a capacity in which they feel unsafe. If that happens to you, report that shit as soon as possible to the right person.

All of that aside: you’re an actor with a job to get on with. And I’m here to tell you there are millions of other ways to get from A to B in your work that are; creatively stimulating, safe for your mental health, and effective – regardless of the subject matter at hand. 

A Sense Memory Exercise 

I want you to get the biggest piece of paper you can find and draw a single line along the length of it. This line represents the span of your life from zero until the present day. I want you to find the spots along the line at the age you were when you first remember experiencing very specific emotions that expanded your understanding of life’s complexity. These may not actually be the very first time these things happened to you, but rather the first time you can remember truly experiencing it. I want you to try and avoid the primary colour equivalents of concepts or emotions such as joy, sadness, grief or happiness. In the same way our character’s journey is unique, it’s useful to have easy access to and memory of the moments in your own life that are an interesting blend of colour, tone and complexity.

sense memory exercise

Here’s are just a few examples: When do you remember the first feeling/realise the existence of the following:

  • Injustice
  • Ecstasy
  • The impermanence of life 
  • Powerlessness
  • Powerfulness
  • Emotional control or manipulation
  • The solar system
  • The endlessness of time
  • Class difference
  • Religious difference
  • Cultural difference
  • Awe
  • Wonder
  • Deep respect
  • The power of nature’s ability to destroy and rebuild itself
  • The limits of your body
  • The limitlessness of your body
  • Your dependence on someone
  • Someone else’s dependence on you
  • Independence
  • Discrimination of any kind
  • A need to lead
  • A need to yield
  • Instability
  • Not having enough of an essential recourse
  • Responsibility
  • The spirit or soul
  • The fact that everything is just atoms and molecules, even your own body
  • Existence
  • The speed of sound or light
  • Politics
  • Defensiveness
  • Defenselessness
  • A need to be protected
  • Protectiveness
  • Emotionally moved by music
  • Emotionally moved by an image
  • Emotionally moved by a stranger 


These are a few of my favourite examples and you can add as many as you’d like. It’s very important to include as much detail as you can about where you were, what happened, and the story and subsequent sensations surrounding it. Did it happen to you or was it something you witnessed that happen to someone else, and in turn make you empathically understand a feeling or realised something’s existence? What did you see, smell, touch/feel, taste or hear at the time?  

When you start doing this exercise, you’ll be amazed at the memories you’ve stored in different parts of yourself. These memories are what makes your experience of life different to everyone else, and at the same time universally connected. These are all of the gifts you can bring to your work that helps you colour and flavour your work and helps you steer away from cliche choices. You can add to this timeline for your whole career, or even make more of them if you run out of space.

Why I Prefer Sense Memory

Emotional Recall is just as effective when drawing on positive emotions and memories you are in control of, as it is when accessing deeply traumatic memories. A great teacher once told me that it takes an hour of work to get one minute of truth on stage, and I live by that. Yes, emotional memories are very strong. Yes, they’re intense. And yes, they’re genuine. But there is a limit to the effect my emotional memories can have on my performance. I will admit to once doing a full run of a show using the same emotional memories until they were a blunt instrument and had no meaning for the text anymore. Because I hadn’t put the work into embodying the emotional states in the present, merely recalling them for effect, my work was all up in my head. Remember, emotional memory is a rehearsal tool and not a performance style. And quite frankly the audience is paying to see the story advertised on the poster, not my personal memories.   

An audience cannot discern any substantial difference in the quality of your work when you’re committing to a memory of a lived experience or committing to the workings of your imagination. It doesn’t matter what you use to get the job done, the quality can only be discerned when you’ve done enough homework or you haven’t. 

But I know from my own experience the best part about working from a place of imagination is:

  1.   It hasn’t actually happened to me and therefore carries no trauma.
  2.   The imagination is limitless. 

When I use the right combo of using my own personal experiences to help connect with the character, use sense memory work to help it get into my body, and then commit to the power of my imagination to bridge the gap between my world and my character’s world then I feel completely limitless and free in my work. I also need a director that trusts that I will get there eventually. I find I can throw away an imagined experience as easily as a kid stops playing an imaginary game in the schoolyard and picks up where they left off the next day. I’m not saying that a child will be doing brilliant acting, but they have a healthy detachment from what they’re doing – they’re playing. And our job is no different.

And now to wrap it all up…

I want to encourage any actor reading this to feel empowered to step out of your comfort zone and try this technique if it’s new to you. If you’re in training, at work or just in the mood to make your technique feel more personalized – after all, we have to try as many acting techniques as we can to decide what really works for us and what doesn’t. All I want you to do is to really check yourself before you wreck yourself. Rather than using emotional recall to prove the depths of my intensity, I can put into my work, but approaching it from a place of curious exploration of my character’s arc puts me in good stead. And I hope I hope it does for you too.

Know your limits, know your rights, know what the story needs from you at each specific moment – and enjoy the discoveries you make along the way!

About the Author

Emma O’Sullivan

Emma O’Sullivan is an actor, writer, juggler, frequent pasta maker and sometimes stilt walker. She graduated from WAAPA in 2016 with a BA Acting, and cut her teeth at the Hayman Theatre, Curtin University. Since graduating she has written and performed two solo shows at Perth, Newcastle and Sydney fringe and also with JackRabbit Theatre company. Originally from Perth, she is now based on the east coast and when you don’t see Em onstage you’ll find her practicing some *siq* new diabolo tricks and club juggling at park near you.

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