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Actors & Memory

Association for Psychological Science: 'To be or, or ... um ... line!'

Given my own undependable memory and the hand-hewn props I rely upon to shore it up, I was intrigued by this article/press release from last year on how actors are able to remember their lines (via boing boing):

According to the researchers, the secret of actors' memories is, well, acting. An actor acquires lines readily by focusing not on the words of the script, but on those words' meaning — the moment-to-moment motivations of the character saying them — as well as on the physical and emotional dimensions of their performance.

That resonates for me. I'm pretty sure that a lot of my own memory deficits start at the time of "encoding" because I haven't done more than try to shove the words into the right slots. This approach seems like a sensible and organic way to put the material in a more meaningful mental context.

For a good overview of memory techniques, try the Memory Improvement Tools section over on Mind Tools. I'd recommend starting with the introduction, which offers insight into further engaging your "whole mind" in the memory process:

By coding language and numbers in striking images, you can reliably code both information and the structure of information. You can then easily recall these later.

You can do the following things to make your mnemonics more memorable:

  • Use positive, pleasant images. Your brain often blocks out unpleasant ones
  • Use vivid, colorful, sense-laden images - these are easier to remember than drab ones
  • Use all your senses to code information or dress up an image. Remember that your mnemonic can contain sounds, smells, tastes, touch, movements and feelings as well as pictures.
  • Give your image three dimensions, movement and space to make it more vivid. You can use movement either to maintain the flow of association, or to help you to remember actions.
  • Exaggerate the size of important parts of the image
  • Use humor! Funny or peculiar things are easier to remember than normal ones.
  • Similarly rude rhymes are very difficult to forget!
  • Symbols (red traffic lights, pointing fingers, road signs, etc.) can code quite complex messages quickly and effectively
Joe Briefcase's picture

Another thing some actors do...

Another thing some actors do is memorize lines backwards.

Say you read thru "To Be or not to be...."

It can seem at a glance to be a soft balloon of thoughts of various sorts, and by the end you realize he was contemplating dying but decided death is bad. But it is really a step by step series of revelations in Hamlet's mind that we glimpse as they occur. And the speech is richer and more meaningful if you experience those revelations as Hamlet does.

First he ponders where it is better to live or be dead. Then he muses that be dead is no different than sleeping. Then he points out to himself that when you sleep you have dreams. Then he speculates that the dead might also experience another world. He considers the possibility that those visions might be horrifying and that man in this world cannot know them. He observes the nature of the fear and trembling we all experience on the brink of this unknown. And then he speculates that death is horrible merely because man imagines (and could be correct) there are unknown horrors on the other side. He compares it to his own inaction and makes observations about how this fear might cause us all to fail to act.

After studying this a million times this step by step series of insights is clear, but it is much more organic when you hear it on stage or screen (and is meant to be).

An actor, by going thru it backwards, develops a hyperawareness of why the line he just learned is there because the next thing he learns is the line that created the conditions for it. You don't see so clearly that one line leads to the next when you read it the normal way because you are used to gaining meaning in chunks and taking the whole context in before drawing conclusions. If you go backwards, it all makes no sense whatsoever so the mind grasps at the meaning of each line in order to make the experience cohesive. This is my very unschooled layman's explanation, and I'm sure it could be better explained by experts.

It seems very much like the drawing technique wherein you turn an image upside down and draw it that way, an act that dramatically emphasizes one line leading to the next without the confusion created by whatever perception of the whole image you might have had when it was uprigt and normal. Freed from your idea about this image by approaching it from the backside like this you are relatively free to see all the connecting fibers (the tress more clearly than the forest) and build a much firmer foundation of understanding.

I think you could draw paralells to reverse engineering as well. You want to know how a machine works when you have the machine over here and all the parts over there is difficult because you can't stop thinking about your existing perceptions of the machine. Take it apart from finished to pile of parts without regard for the "meaning" of the machine and you develop a rapid understanding of how and why it was assembled as it was. That is also a very unschooled explanation of reverse engineering, but for this discussion perhaps it is close enough to a poetric understanding of the idea.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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