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As I walk along the city streets at this time of year I invariably pass the makeshift tree farms hugging half the sidewalk in front of drug stores, supermarkets, delis and parking lots.  I’m usually in a rush and curse the impact they have on pedestrian traffic. But to catch a whiff of evergreen is enchanting and I am at once transported to happy childhood summers spent at Camp Kehonka in the woods of New Hampshire.  Sounds like I’m an actor engaging in a sense memory moment.

Our sense of smell.  How does it work?  It’s very interesting actually and has to do with our brain, specifically a structure in the forebrain of vertebrates called the olfactory bulb.  Cells located in our nose process odor input and send the signals to the olfactory bulb, where it processes (decodes and labels) the incoming information and serves as a pathway for the input to travel to different parts of the brain.

What’s the connection between smell and memory?  Apparently the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, often times referred to as the “emotional brain” because it is so closely associated with memory and feeling.  The olfactory bulb has close access to the two structures of the brain’s limbic system—the amygdala which processes emotion and the hippocampus which is responsible for associative learning.  Associative learning is what links a smell to a memory and why smells can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.  

Then there is a little thing called conditioned response.  When a person first smells a new scent, he or she links it to an event, person, thing or even a moment.  Thus, the brain forges a link between a smell and a memory. Voila, the ingredients of the “sense memory” technique of Method actors.

For example you might “associate” the smell of chlorine with summers at the pool or as I did the smell of evergreen with summers at camp.  When you encounter the smell again the link is already there to bring back a memory or mood.  Each of these smell memories has a memory or mood associated with it—perhaps contentment or unease—and you might not necessarily know why you are feeling the way you do when you encounter that smell.  And not everybody has the same reactions.  It is a personal, individual thing.  

In a article posted on Backstage in 2009, acting teacher Joan Stephens is quoted as saying, “The conventional use of sense memory helps actors create physical conditions—for example, the feeling of a hot day, a bad headache, or a broken leg. But decades ago psychiatrists discovered an ‘emotional release object,’ which can release an entire emotional event. After many years of acting and teaching, I have developed a method that enables actors to discover and use their emotional release objects on demand. The actor revisits one simple image, a sense memory—the sound of a ticking clock in a hospital, the feeling of a wire hanger hitting one's face—and immediately begins to sob, laugh, or even shake with fear. It's a powerful emotional acting tool when mastered.” She goes on to say that without sense memory, actors “cannot act.”  This is due to affective memory which is the cornerstone of the Stanislavski System and Lee Strassberg’s Method Acting where the emphasis seems to be the recall of physical sensations surrounding emotional events (instead of the emotions themselves).

It all goes to show that the nose knows...or is it remembers? 

—Margaret Emory

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