Emotional recall is a primary tool that is taught at some acting schools and is especially associated with The Actor's Studio. It basically means that the actor recalls a past event in his or her life, gets in touch with the emotion associated with that event, and then transfers that emotion to the character he is playing in a particular scene.
The good (for some actors) is that they are using a real emotion rather than something they are making up. The bad is that it can take the actor's focus out of the scene he is playing in order for him to recall the real experience and the emotion attached to it. Another negative is that the actor may have to relive traumatic moments from his past and do it over and over. The effects of doing this may stay with the actor for awhile after he is finished for the day, or after the project is over.
Another problem with depending on emotional recall is that the actor may not have experienced the kind of emotional event that is required to get the correct emotion for the scene. Strasberg, who was the main proponent of emotional recall at the Actor's Studio, felt that everyone had those emotions somewhere inside, if only they would open themselves up to access them.
With sense memory we use our senses to explore something, then reuse them for a scene or activity in a performance. For example, suppose I need to react to the taste of alcohol in a scene, but of course we aren't using real booze.
I might taste the liquor in my real life while really using my senses while tasting it. What does it smell like as I bring it to my lips? What does that first sip taste like? Maybe it's bitter and it burns the tip of my tongue. Then I feel its warmth as it goes down my throat and into my stomach. Now I can recall those senses as I sip a fake shot of liquor (often it's something like tea, which can be different colors to look like different kinds of liquor).
We can practice sense memory and strengthen it. Try this – take an orange, close your eyes and smell it and feel the texture. Then slowly peel it and really notice the difference as the peel comes off and the smell gets stronger. Feel the damp spray as you separate the slices. Finally taste it and notice the different textures that are part of the slice – the rough part of the skin, as well as the smooth part, how tart or sweet it is. The acidity of the juice. Use every sense to explore the orange. Now do this with other objects – anything you can use your senses on will work.
When you've finished exploring an object, put it aside and recreate the same awareness of those senses in your mind.
Then take another object and transfer that sensual experience onto the new object. Example: after you finished with the orange, take a ball (tennis ball, baseball, anything like that, and pretend that it's an orange. Now, drawing on the experience you had with a real orange, get those same feelings with the ball – as if it is an orange.
In this way, when we have to take a drink of tea, that is supposed to be liquor, we can react honestly as if it's actually liquor.
If you have any questions about this, drop me a note.