Part 2: Nuts And Bolts Techniques

Chapter 8: Sense Memory

Sense Memory is one of the most basic and most effective acting techniques for improving real life situations. Not only is it used in one form or another by most actors, but it is also the basis for a great number of other acting techniques.

Sense Memory is one of the techniques that allows an actor to laugh or cry on a dime—sometimes simply by remembering the smell of someone’s perfume, or the taste of a special desert.

What you do is remember something with your senses. The smell of a rose. The touch of someone’s hand on your cheek. Your whole body will react as if the rose or hand were really there. Because our bodies have stored every sensory experience we have ever had.

Discover Sense Memory with a Lemon Wedge
• With your eyes open or closed, imagine you are holding a lemon wedge and see its bright yellow color.
• Feel its thick nubby skin.
• Bring your hand with the imaginary lemon in it towards your face and with a deep breath, smell the lemon.
• Now bring the lemon wedge towards your teeth and feel your teeth against the translucent skin.
• Bite into the lemon and feel your teeth as they move through the skin and the pulp.
• Feel the juice as it begins to run into your mouth. Feel it on your tongue, and on your teeth and gums. What temperature is it? Is it cold? Warm?
• How does it taste? Is it sweet? Is it sour? Bitter?

Are you salivating now? You probably are. Roughly one hundred and ninety-nine out of every two hundred people who work with me do. Why? Because our unconscious body memories do not know the difference between what is real and what is imaginary. Everything we have ever sensed with our bodies is stored in the amazing computer that is us, and simply by ordering one of your senses to remember some sensory reality, your body will react as if the sensory stimulus were really there.

The ramifications of this physical phenomenon are far reaching and ultimately thrilling. Let’s face it: there was no real lemon, and you were salivating, which is an unconscious physical response, like stage fright with its sweaty palms, dry mouth and hyperventilating. People can scream “SALIVATE!” to you until the cows come home, but if you don’t actually imagine a taste, a feel, or a smell, you won’t.


If you want your body to be relaxed, playful or powerful, the trick here is only to know what sensory reality actually makes your body feel – relaxed, playful, powerful, or anything else you might want it to feel.

Sensory stimuli effect us all the time. If you suddenly remember someone who has died, whom you loved, you will unconsciously remember some sensory detail about that person – his smell, the sound of his laugh, the light in his eye, and your whole body and mood will change. Your whole body and mood change with even the subtlest change in either your physical reality or your memory of a physical reality.

If it is raining, if you have a stomachache, if you go to the circus, or if you can remember a particular rain, a stomachache or a circus, your whole body will change. Suddenly you are happy or sad or silly or thoughtful. Actors consciously create, or rather recreate, these remembered states and transform themselves into characters who are happy, sad, silly, thoughtful or anything else.

How Sense Memory Works For Me
The crashing of ocean waves on rocks makes my body feel alive and powerful and safe. Real ocean waves, or the same waves recreated sensorily. In other words, hearing the crashing of the waves, smelling the salty sea air, seeing the foam, all these sensory realities make my body act as if it were really at the ocean. Whether I’m at the ocean or not. And I just feel wonderful.

You could say it’s a cheap high. It’s certainly a way for me to control my body, instead of having my body make me feel – tense, unhappy or scared. I like feeling relaxed, powerful and excited. So, in a situation where I might otherwise be feeling tense, pathetic, or slightly dead, recreating the crashing ocean waves on the wall opposite me is just what I need to have a good time.

Marilyn Monroe Uses Sense Memory
Sir Lawrence Olivier directed Marilyn Monroe in the movie The Prince and The Showgirl. He wanted her to enter her first scene sparkling and full of spunk and wit. To his great frustration, none of his directions, ideas, explanations, or demonstrations seemed to help at all.

Then Marilyn’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg, told her to use “Coca Cola and Frankie Sinatra.”

That was all she needed. She tasted the Coca-Cola, felt the bubbles, heard the fizz. She heard Sinatra’s voice, saw his face, felt his hand, his arm, whatever. And she is scintillating in that scene. Simply using Sense Memory.

How You Can Use Sense Memory
Let’s say you have a job interview, and you’re nervous. If you feel great about that interview, just walk in there, have a good time, and get that job.

But let’s say you’re nervous. The trick here is to find those Sense Memories that will make you feel however you want to feel when you walk into that room.

What makes you feel confident, loved, and alive? If it’s your lover, use your lover. If it’s your dog, use your dog. And use all five senses to recreate every detail that you can: skin color; the look in the eye; the colors of the eye; the tone of the voice; the smell.

Be as specific as possible. That’s your preparation, before you go into that interview. Eventually, you may find that just one sensory detail will trigger your body’s total transformation.

If there’s some one-ring circus that makes you feel wonderful and secure, then smell the popcorn and the elephants. Feel the cotton candy, sticky around your mouth. Taste how sweet it is on your tongue. Feel the hardness of the circus bench underneath you. And when you go into that interview, bring your circus with you:
• When you look up at the ceiling, see the red and blue stripes of the circus tent over your head, if that’s what convinces your body that you’re actually there.
• Or see your favorite ballerina on the flying trapeze.
• Can you imagine your favorite bareback rider rearing her horse right behind whoever is interviewing you?
• What about the largest bag of popcorn possible, sitting on your lap. If you like popcorn.


Dustin Hoffman says he’ll use absolutely anything on a set to get him to be however he needs to be. It should be no different for us out in real life. Use sense memory to make you feel how you want to feel, and no one will ever know what you’re using.

Someone I know can go into a meeting, and only has to think, when he sits down, that he is sitting on that circus bench, and he’s relaxed and happy. And he can sustain those feelings all the way through the meeting, no matter what surprise questions he may have to field.

What if you feel your circus excitement at the beginning of the interview, but you lose it later on, and suddenly notice yourself getting dry-mouthed and tense?

Just send in the clowns. Hear the outrageous honk of a rubber horn, if that brings back your circus high. Hear it just for a minute, to relax you, center you, make you come alive. Or, with a deep breath, breathe in the smell of the sawdust. Then go back to being interviewed.

Don’t be afraid of taking that moment. What’s the worst thing your interviewer could be thinking? Could he be thinking that you’re thinking? You are! And he probably wants to hire somebody who thinks. Smelling the sawdust will only take a second; and probably no one but you will even notice that you are doing anything out of the ordinary.

What you are doing is waking up and bringing yourself into your secure, happy body, instead of drowning in some unconscious scenario of when you were scared as a kid. Your interviewer is going to want to hire someone who is secure and happy. Go for it.

Sense Memory Exercises
How do you want to feel and what makes you feel that way? Does the ocean make you feel excited and alive, or does it make you want to go to sleep? If it makes you want to go to sleep, this is not the Sense Memory you want to use before going into that high-powered business meeting.

For situations where you might feel uncomfortable, what would make you feel safe? A favorite tree? A certain running brook? The view outside your bedroom window? Whatever it is that makes you feel how you want to feel, the technique is the same: You create the situation sensorily and ask yourself specific questions:
• What are you seeing? Be as specific as possible. What is the exact color of what you are seeing? Can you be even more specific about the shade?
• What are you hearing? Is there a special piano piece that makes you smile? Who’s playing it? How rich is the tone
of the piano?
• What are you feeling against your body? Again make sure you force your body to feel it by asking specific questions: If it’s fur, is it as soft as your dog’s, or not as soft as your rabbit’s?
• What are you smelling? Again, be specific. If you’re recreating the smell of a rose, it might help you to ask what else the rose smells like to get you to focus. For example: Is it like vanilla, or cloves? Or pancake batter?
• What is your favorite food? Be specific and describe exactly what you are tasting. How sweet is that sundae? Describe the exact texture of the hot fudge, try and sense precisely how hot it is, how cold the ice cream.
• What is your favorite animal? Does your dog make you smile? Does she smell like popcorn? Can you see the dirt on her nose?
If you have a favorite beach or mountaintop that inspires you, feel the wind there, its temperature, its speed, its softness. Or does it almost burn your face? If it feels good, use it. If pain turns you on, use it.
If a certain garden makes you smile, really smell the air. Be specific. Does it smell like something else? Like peaches? Or talcum powder? Or your grandmother? If not, how is it different?


The more you are conscious of the sensory specifics, the less your attention will be on your nerves or on how badly you may be doing. Instead of focusing on the judges who aren’t really there, you will be focused on a positive experience that will get you smiling.So, if you’re at the ocean:
• Can you really hear the waves? Do they sound like drums? Or cymbals?
• Can you hear birds? Really hear them? Breathe. Listen again.
• Can you feel your skin? Is someone touching it? With how soft a touch?
• Is someone sitting next to you? Is she wearing a bikini? What color is it?
• Is the man next to you wearing anything at all? What color is it?
Find what turns you on and bring it into those difficult situations. No one but you will know if you bring in an imaginary big hairy sheep dog to that high powered lunch. But if that mutt makes you feel secure, you just put that doggy under the table. Let him do anything he wants. Anything. This will relax you, and give you a focus for your attention other than whether the man across the table likes you.
You don’t need these techniques, remember, if the job interview is somehow automatically and magically easy. But sometimes, just a hit of something you love, the sound of your favorite song, the taste of your favorite food, will reprogram your unconscious from a state of fear into a state of joy, and then it’s easy sailing.


If some unconscious tape is getting you scared, replace it with a Sense Memory. Remember, you’re contacting your unconscious when you do. Replace the lousy tape with a better one, one that makes you feel great.

Sense Memory Really Does Work
Dr. Cheryl Klefeld, licensed psychotherapist and Fellow of the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America, tells me that she uses “sensory imagery” all the time to help people bring down levels of pain, blood pressure and anxiety. “Sensory imagery” is one of the medical terms for Sense Memory.

“Sense Memory is actually an old concept in the field of psychotherapy. It dates back to Pavlovian conditioning where neutral stimuli are paired with unconditioned stimuli to bring about a conditioned response. Sense Memory is a variation of this type of training which brings involuntary, autonomic physiological processes under conscious control.”

Belleruth Naparstek, an expert and best-selling author on the subject of “guided imagery” (another name for Sense Memory), cites a number of studies demonstrating the power of Sense Memory. Here are two.

In the year 2000, researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and Elvira Lang at Harvard Medical School studied 241 people having invasive, high anxiety surgeries that did not require general anesthesia but only topical pain medication.

Of the three groups studied, the first was given technical information from their doctor, before the operation, on what would happen; the second group was given a nurse coach who sat by the patients’ heads giving both information and reassurance (in other words, “You’re doing great”).

The third group was given a nurse coach who led its patients in sensory, guided imagery. This group tested with lower pain levels, shorter hospital stays and had significantly less anxiety than the other two groups.

Naparstek also participated in a study at UC Davis with Henry David, where patients heard audiotapes during their operations. Of the four groups studied, the first group was played tones which drive the brain into a state of relaxation; the second group was given cognitive information (“Here’s what to expect”); the third group was played affirmations to music.

The fourth group was given Naparstek’s “Guided Sensory Imagery” tape. This group reduced the length of its patients’ hospital stays by twenty-eight hours, had significantly less blood loss (150cc less), had less reported anxiety, and less post-operative pain than the other three groups.

In other words, when people use the proper Sense Memory, their bodies can get stronger and their anxiety levels diminish.

A Practical Question You May Be Asking
My clients sometimes ask, “Won’t I be distracted from my conversation—say, with the bank president, if I am feeling some dog pounding my leg with its head? Don’t I need my total attention on that conversation?”

Yes, you do. What you don’t need are all of your fears, all of your tensions, and all those mental knots and paranoid fantasies that can also show up at times like this. In many ways, the right Sense Memory can melt them away.

The truth is, if you are hearing some negative tape, based on something negative that was done to you in the past, you will not be fully with the man across the desk, anyway. Better you should be with an imaginary dog that makes you feel good, than with some unconscious memory of your father yelling at you making you think you did something bad. And as you have seen, if it is a real dog, or an imaginary dog, your body will react in the same positive way. It’s just sometimes not real convenient to bring a real, big, shaggy sheep dog with you to a formal business meeting.

Sense Memory doesn’t have to distract you from the conversation at hand, any more than if your favorite dog were really lying across your feet or if your favorite flowers were really on that desk. And if you really love that dog, if he really makes you feel relaxed and happy, you might perform even better if he were there.

In my workshops I have people hold a stone in their hand and say “I am Amanda Petunia” (or whatever someone’s name is), “and I am feeling this stone in my hand and I can see you and hear you and talk to you at the same time.” This allows people to realize that feeling the stone in their hands really doesn’t diminish their ability to hear, talk, see, and do what they have to do.

Try it. You’ll see.

A Screenwriter Uses Sense Memory

Jack, a thirty-five year old television writer, was an amusing man. I’d met him at one of his plays. He was warm, personable, funny—like the protagonist of his comedy.

He came to me because he had trouble doing what is known in show business as “pitching stories,” that is, selling ideas for shows and movies to rooms full of television executives. In the network building boardrooms, he would freeze. His mouth went dry; he couldn’t think. Not only did his humor leave him, and his charm, but also, his words.

I explained the premise of Sense Memory to him. We tried to find something he could use. The ocean didn’t work. His favorite foods didn’t work.

I knew that Jack was married, and he mentioned he had recently had a little girl. As soon as he told me her name, his face lit up. He came alive, was clearly relaxed, and felt good.

I asked him to imagine his little girl on his lap. He immediately started smiling, practically laughing. We know that when we smile, we actually emit a chemical that strengthens our immune systems, so that at the same time Jack was having a good time thinking about his daughter, his body was getting stronger—which is of course what he wanted to feel at those pitch meetings.

Without even trying, Jack could instantly smell his daughter’s hair, hear her laugh, feel her skin, see her face. I suggested that he go into his pitch meetings doing a Sense Memory of his little girl on his lap.

Sometimes, I work with people for weeks or even months, until they learn to relax and can go into meetings or social situations being how they want to be. Stanislavski said it took twenty years to make an actor.

With Jack, it took one session. As soon as we came up with the idea of his little girl, it was clear he wouldn’t need anything else. Just the thought of her and he was smiling, his body felt safe, his humor had returned.

His loving feelings were stronger than his fear, and the Sense Memory went right to his unconscious, and in a sense reprogrammed his brain to feel love and security instead of stage fright and angst.

Jack not only talks at those pitch meetings now, he actually enjoys them.