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What is Sense Memory?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “sense memory” is used in two very different ways. In the first way, it involves the interaction of the senses and the memory, and the ways in which certain sensory stimuli can trigger memories. People may also evoke the concept of sense memory in the context of an acting technique known as affective memory, in which actors attempt to use their senses to put themselves into the mindset of their characters.

Researchers who work with memory have learned that the five senses can play a very significant role in the process of making, storing, and retrieving memories. Smell in particular is very evocative, as the olfactory bulb is located right next to the part of the brain that handles memory storage, so people tend to create strong links between smells and particular memories. Many people have strong associations with a huge variety of smells, ranging from “my grandmother's house” to “that one really good meal,” and smell is sometimes used in marketing to recall such memories and encourage people to buy things.

The senses of touch, hearing, sight, and taste can also play a role in sense memory, although these senses are not as directly as involved as the sense of smell. If you close your eyes for a moment, you may be able to visualize the inside of your kitchen, remember what it feels like to pet an animal, evoke the taste of a piece of fruit, or recall a particular chord in a favorite song. In these cases, the sensational experience is stored in the mind along with the memory of the event.

Within the realm of acting theory, people use “sense memory” to talk about recalling memories which can be used to more fully inhabit a character on stage. For example, when an actor wants to get into the mood for a sad scene, he or she might use sense memory to reconstruct a funeral or other sad event. Rather than just acting sad, the actor momentarily is sad as he or she remembers the sound of the rain on umbrellas, the feel of a clot of earth, and the smell of lilies around the grave.

Affective memory is a controversial technique. Several acting techniques and methods rely on sense memory to improve acting skills, and proponents of these schools of acting argue that their acting feels more real and believable when they harness sense memory. Other people believe that the concept is dubious at best, and that people tend to use it as a crutch on stage, rather than refining their skills in other ways.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a InfoBloom researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By GigaGold — On Feb 04, 2011

I often encounter a smell from some location and it suddenly brings images or feelings with it. It is usually more difficult to fully recall where these memories are from and the circumstances surrounding them, but I can gather bits and pieces. It is interesting to note that olfactory memory is usually linked to a certain subjective "feeling" or chemical release in the body. Feelings such as these seem to be most closely related to smell, in terms of memory strength and association.

By TrogJoe19 — On Feb 01, 2011

If you are interested in learning how to improve your memory, it is helpful to do an online search for mnemonic techniques. There are also various book resources that may be available at your local bookstore or library. Some of these techniques improve your sense memory and ability to relate senses to past experience that you'd like to recall more fully. Most of these will also aid you in recalling present events or facts which you would like to retain well into the future for usage.

By Qohe1et — On Jan 31, 2011

Sense memory could also be a controversial acting technique because it is seen as self-abuse or psychological manipulation. It is generally a voluntary process, since a director using these techniques could be liable for psychological terrorism if he or she has not signed a waiver with the actor. Recalling painful events on a regular basis can also cause emotional numbness on the part of actors, which can sometimes lead to other psychological issues.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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