How To Use Your Memory The Way Actors Do

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So you say you have a wedding toast to memorize? A twenty-minute speech you have to know by heart? A list of people’s names you absolutely must remember? That’s nothing! Imagine delivering the long soliloquies of Shakespeare or the impassioned speeches of Arthur Miller or the razor-sharp dialogue of David Mamet. When it comes to memorization, professional actors can claim bragging rights. They must reproduce their scripts exactly—no improvising allowed—night after night, under blinding lights, in front of a demanding audience. How do they do it? Helga Noice, a professor of psychology at Elmhurst College in Illinois, has spent more than 20 years investigating that question, and her findings hold lessons for all of us who must sometimes commit words to memory.

Noice’s first and most surprising discovery is that most actors don’t memorize their lines in the traditional sense at all. Rather, they begin by reading the script over and over again, looking for what they call the “throughline”—the causal chain that leads one event in the play to topple into the next and the next. “Almost every line of the script is mined for clues as to the characters, situations, or relationships,” Noice writes, commenting on the method practiced by the actors she interviewed.

They are searching for the intentions of the play’s characters: why they do what they do, and especially, why they say what they say. Actors pay minute attention to every snatch of dialogue because each word offers a hint of the speaker’s motivations and desires. As they engage in this “micro-level” processing of the material, Noice notes, memorization of the lines just happens: “At no time did the actors attempt to memorize the words directly, but rather tried to discern why the character would use those particular words to express that particular thought.”

Another key to actors’ superlative memories: words are often intimately connected to actions onstage. Cast members’ movements are carefully blocked out during rehearsal, and so their lines are always matched to the same physical motions, forming a kind of bodily mnemonic device. Indeed, Noice’s studies show that months after the final performance of a play, actors recalled dialogue that had been accompanied by movement about the stage better than dialogue that had been spoken while remaining in place. “You’ve got to have these two tracks going simultaneously — ‘This is what I say, and this is when and where I move,’” one of the actors told Noice. “One feeds the other, and you move and say the line” in a synchrony of speech and action.

Lastly, the emotions actors bring to their parts sear the words into their memories. Acting is no dry recitation, but an evocation of actual emotion and the visceral feelings brought forth on stage make the words that go with them hard to forget. Although these principles were enumerated by professional actors and not cognitive psychologists, all three of them—deep processing, physical movement and emotional associations—find substantial support in the scientific literature on memory.

So the next time you need to know something by heart, take a cue from those who learn lines for a living. Try “to find out the whys,” as one actor described his process of searching for the deeper meaning behind a text. Try to tie the words you speak to the moves your body makes — the gestures you proffer at certain points in a speech, for example, or the welcoming posture you adopt when you’re greeting new acquaintances. And infuse your delivery with some real emotion. Applause will surely follow.

Brilliant readers, have you found ways to remember your “lines” when you have to speak in public? Please share your experiences below.

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18 Responses to “How To Use Your Memory The Way Actors Do”

  1. Paul says:

    Very, very interesting indeed. But it makes me wonder—what about the memory mechanics of learning poetry, where there is less movement?

  2. M. Catlett says:

    This is useful; I’ve an infamously bad memory for certain things. Looking back, it’s probably because I fail to make an emotional investment into them.

    I’ve always wondered why, if I make a note of something, then I no longer need to consult my notes to remember it. Probably not the same body memory thing you’re talking about, but perhaps an interesting correlation.

  3. Eric Christiansen says:

    As a High School Theatre teacher, I am always talking with students about how to memorize. I agree with everything you say, plus I would add that you (one) really do need to work on memorizing, too. Here’s how:

    STEP ONE – on your own
    (1) Read the first couple of lines of the material you need to memorize OUT LOUD (not to yourself).
    (2) Cover the text with your hand — try to say it again (out loud). If you have it, move one. If you don’t, repeat. Never stop on a mistake: always go back & say it correctly before you move on.
    (3) Once you have mastered a couple of lines, move on to the next “chunk” — don’t go back to the beginning each time — otherwise, you’ll know the beginning perfectly and never remember the end. Rough out the entire piece this way.

    STEP TWO – get help
    (4) When you think you have it, get a friend to be “on book” for you — the friend holds the script & you say the text to that person.
    (5) Your friend needs to interrupt on EVERY mistake and say the correct text out loud at that time. You REPEAT what is correct before you move on. Never stop on a mistake; do not let it slide.
    (6) Work through the entire piece, chunk by chunk – don’t go back to the beginning each time.

    STEP THREE – You think you’re there
    (7) You are ready to try it all — this time, you are going through the entire piece, without stopping. If you get hung up, stay in the moment, hold onto your concentration and say the word “line” — your friend feeds you the first three words (or so) of what’s next. You repeat those words and go on. If you need three more words, stay with it & ask for “line” again. Repeat. Don’t apologize; don’t get flustered; don’t worry: everybody goes through this phase, even the pros.
    (8) If you really do have it, GREAT! Do it again. If you don’t, go back to steps two or one.

    (9) Only do this for 30 to 40 minutes at a time — then do something else that does NOT involve memorizing, something easy that you can do without thinking. The text needs to sink in. Give it time. Much better to work every day for half an hour than to try to cram. If you try to cram in a single session, you’ll panic as soon as you are in front of an audience.

    (10) Make sure you create signposts for yourself in the text: where does the intention change? Where are the transitions? Have an outline in your head about the broad structure of the piece. This is comforting in the sense of knowing the whole thing, plus is something you can rely on in an emergency.


  4. T Hughes says:

    While all these things are part of the memorization process, actual repetitive line runs without emotion or movement are also part of the process in my experience. One Shakespearean actor who worked with my class said he needed to run his lines more than a hundred times outside of rehearsal to own them. He would recite them without “acting” them as he went about daily activities.

  5. Very interesting – I never really thought of it but this ‘connect the dots’ idea is exactly how I remember music, especially melodic lines, chord progressions, & specific solos etc. Like an actor, I have definitive details committed to memory – starting notes, key signatures etc. This allows me to free up lots of brain power for the spur of the moment additions (improvisations)without being a slave to what is written. As usual – lots of good info here that can be applied to teaching and learning music!

  6. ArteMamma says:

    In my experience, the memory of the body is the strongest one, as it’s able to shape our postures and temperament all along our life.

  7. Garrett says:

    Thanks for this, Annie, and I appreciate that you delve into research that explores both mental and physical associations. Sharing with my stepdaughter who is active in theater production.

  8. John Bennett says:

    Interesting for sure. But since I’m not ever going to be an actor AND since any efforts with students (formal or informal) will never even hint at memorization, not of value to me as a skill. Yes, everyone needs to learn core knowledge. Yes, to me at least, that involves what I call a vision related to each bit of core knowledge. But that vision is learned through the development of it as well as through the application of it to learning for and application to situations encountered through dialogue about it with others.

    I might find use of these ideas if I were seeking to become a contestant on Jeopardy. But that doesn’t interest me. If I learn through my approach, I’ll benefit from that effort for a long time. If I use the actor approach outlined here, I have to hope I’m asked back for another Jeopardy round (is something similar) to benefit again from my efforts.

    • Darryl says:

      Yes, but there are many more applications for memory than just learning random bits of information ala Jeopardy. Learning people’s names, histories (as in client history). Also increasing of memory is a skill that will help us as we age.

      Thus, I don’t view it as just a pragmatic skill for a job–but a way to increase my health.

  9. Nina Smith says:

    These are the very same elements that are visible in meaningful learning: throughline – causality; intentions and dialogue – understanding why I am learning this; content connected to emotions and movement – personalization of learning process; the “two tracks” or connections – learning is ALWAYS situational and contextual. (More of meaningful learning here: http://wp.me/p25vY5-2a)

    It would be foolish to think memorization has nothing to do with good quality learning, and turn away from it in the search of improved learning & teaching. Helping students create their own learning strategies can be based on these ideas. Memorization is always there in the background of learning, but it shouldn’t be overemphasized as the ONLY result of learning, and in the times of instant information very personalized clues and hints to find the necessary information.

    Excellent piece, thank you!

  10. Joe Bellina says:

    Marvelous article. What is amazing to me is how these ideas dovetail so well with what “How People Learn” from the NAS says about the importance of context in learning in school.

  11. J. E. Sigler says:

    Memorization for acting, ok. But for speeches? Sometimes, yes. For experts, sure. But most people can NOT pull off a memorized speech. So please, PLEASE, don’t memorize your speeches! We’re not all presidents and motivational speakers here…

  12. Jim Smith says:

    I have heard that short-term memory has a duration of roughly twelve hours; items that have been learned will take about that much time to be processed into long-term memory, and retained. Not all material is, of course, but major impressions and material “scope” can be recalled. If a twelve-hour cycle is skipped, then more material is lost, and has to be reprocessed (or relearned).
    So the brain hack here is to work on memorization for at least a half hour, twice a day, before noon, and after 4 pm. This keeps your short-term memory brimming, and more material gets processed into long-term memory.
    I have no idea if that is based on current cognitive science or neuroscience, but it seems to work for me. When I’m learning my part for songs, I can review it on an MP3 in my car on the way to work and on the way home, and then once more at home or rehearsal with the music, and I can get a piece memorized in three days. In one week, I have it absolutely, unshakably cold. I’m 59, by the way. This also served me well when learning foreign languages. I haven’t acted in some time, but I think this sort of disciplined practice would work well in addition to the learning techniques outlined above.

  13. Mikael Back says:

    Thanks for an interesting article and comments. I was part in a theatre group last year, and our teacher helped us in this way. I can reveal that a few lines that we did not stopped and correct, in our early rehearsals, was impossible to change later on, during our performances. Just small words, but still…it’s kind of frustrating to know that it was something we ignored to change, but on the other hand, we all were non professionals, personalities with different goals…Our vision was not to make it without misstakes, but to enjoy this common project. And we had great fun.

  14. Darryl says:

    I am writing as a communicator and a storyteller (yes, I perform oral stories for a variety of groups including schools, civic groups, etc.), and as someone who attended his first two years of college on a full tuition theatre scholarship.

    I do not memorize stories or presentations word by word. I learn them much the same way I learn a joke. (It requires little effort to remember a joke for most people, right?). Stories are easy because they have a narrative structure and we tend to think in narrative form. I found that when I create a presentation if I craft it like a story and include dimensions of story it is much easier to learn (by avoiding word-by-word memorization I can easily adapt presentations to the audience).

    View your presentation as a narrative with a clear beginning, middle/conflict, and end. It will also make presentations more memorable because people remember stories!

  15. Darryl says:

    I would add–the story structure places you in the middle of the material. We rarely remember texts, but we most always remember experiences. That’s why a narrative/story structure works so well.

    We have to be taught formal logic, no one has to be taught how to tell a story or think in story. When your child comes home from school they do not say, “Let me give you a three point syllogism as to why my locker mate is an idiot.” Instead they say, “You won’t believe what happened today! My locker mate is such an idiot, I was opening my locker when he walked up and…”

    You get the idea.

  16. Ayako Ezaki says:

    I think this is also a very helpful tip to help improve presentation/public speaking skills. Although acting (memorizing lines and performing scenes) is of course different from presenting, the process of practicing what you’re going to talk about and trying to be as realistic and relatable but also emotional and passionate – just like professional actors do so well – are an important part of making any presentation more interesting and memorable. I’ve taken a few courses on storytelling, and “learn from actors” was also one of the key take-aways from those courses.

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