Scientists recently staged an experiment that recorded individual brain cells in the process of remembering a specific event, revealing not just where experiences are stored, but how the brain recreates them in memory. In the experiment, scientists recorded the brain activity of subjects who watched a series of film clips, and then asked them questions about what they’d seen. In each case, the neurons that showed activity when a particular film clip played fired again when researchers asked the subject to remember the clip. The memory of an event, then, is stored in the same cells that first experienced that event. Though summary memory most likely follows a different mechanism, encapsulating the rich panoply of sensory details under a headline (“Bitten by a Dog,” for example), the neurological link between experiencing an event and the brain’s memory of the event is firmly established: Direct memory is stored in the same brain cells that experience the event.
For the writer, the implication is clear. Memory is neurologically linked to the actual experience of the event. A writer can exploit this neurological link through the technique of sense memory, unlocking place details about a past event, and visceral emotions that can animate your characters. Sense memory can help you recapture direct experience, from the color of the sky when you first glimpsed the ocean to the sensation of the first ocean breeze that brushed across your face.
Once you drill closer to the original memory, you’ll likely notice emotions that you thought you’d lost long ago. That emotional memory will help you connect with characters experiencing a similar emotion. A writer who imbues her characters with genuine emotion will generally avoid stereotype and cliché because she’s writing from her own emotional center, rather than from a stale idea. If, for example, you’re writing about a character who has just come face to face with a velociraptor, you don’t have to fall back on abstraction and summary with lines like, “John was terrified by the long fangs and slashing claws of the beast.” Instead, settle into your place of writing, close your eyes, and let your mind relax. Don’t think about anything for a few minutes. Imagine you’re on a raft in the middle of a warm pool, if that helps you relax. Then let your mind drift toward that time when, as a nine year old child, you came face to face with the neighbor’s growling dog. Don’t think in words. Don’t think at all.
Your first emotional memory will probably be a summary of the event, such as, “Wow, was I scared.” Most memories are filed under summaries like this, similar to a headline. Summary memories are the way you learned to tell the story of an event. It’s not direct memory. Move past this summary memory. Look at the ground where you were standing when you first faced the dog. What did it look like? Move your eye from side to side. Where are you? Is it cloudy or sunny? What does the day smell like? Can you hear anything? Now, what does the dog look like?
This isn’t a precise script for accessing affective memory. Instead, use it as a guide to get deep inside your memories and improvise as necessary. When you remember what you were feeling as you were watching the dog, you should be fully in the moment, and the memory should resonate with rich emotional and physical detail. You’ve just remembered, with clarity, what it’s like to face a creature capable of ripping out your throat. Use the emotions you’ve uncovered to write the scene from the perspective of the character experiencing the same emotion.
When using sense memory, remember that if you can’t see, smell, hear, taste, feel, or touch it, you’re probably in abstract memory and haven’t gone deeply enough.