Using Photos and Music to Trigger MemoriesSteve Berube’s life changed forever in 1995 when a horrific car accident left him with multiple injuries, a double concussion, and serious memory loss. Years later, while trying mightily to recapture memories of time spent with family years earlier, Berube mixed pictures and music from his own youth. And some of the memories came back. Now, he’s trying to change other people’s lives through a product he’s developed called ‘photographic journeys.’
As a teenager growing up in the music-rich mid-’70s, Steve Berube remembers becoming almost obsessed with the work of Bruce Springsteen.
“I remember being in high school in 1975 when Born to Run came out…” he said, not finishing that thought, but instead shaking his head a number of times to effectively get his point across about how deeply the music impacted him.
He couldn’t possibly have imagined then that, more than 20 years later, subsequent songs from the Boss would help trigger memories of moments he, his wife, Lisa, and their two older children shared together — recollections he thought were lost forever after a horrific car accident in 1995 led to a double concussion, several other injuries, and tormenting memory loss.
Recalling the years after that mishap and his lengthy and difficult recovery, Berube said he would grow increasingly depressed as his daughter and son would play in the room in front of him and he would have to ask them their names. Equally maddening was staring at the seemingly endless array of Disney memorabilia in the Berube home, collected during multiple trips to Orlando, and not being able to remember anything from those excursions.
But then, through a combination of fate, hope, and something approaching science, Berube put together a chronological sequence of pictures of his children when they were young, including several from those Disney trips, and set them, digitally, to Springsteen music — specifically “Candy’s Room” and “The River.”
And some of those presumably lost memories came back.
“I was able to find the path to Disney for a number of things,” he said. “I had recollections of things I couldn’t remember before.”
It would be several years later before Berube would determine that this effective blend of sequential pictures of specific subjects and music to which an individual has an emotional attachment might constitute a successful therapy for some individuals suffering from memory loss.
On that occasion, he created a video featuring a similar mix of music and pictures for a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, and, more specifically, the occasion of her entering an assisted-living facility.
“Three weeks later, I saw the woman’s daughter at the supermarket,” Berube recalled. “She dropped her bags, ran over to me, gave me a hug, and started bawling; she said her mother had called her by name for the first time in three months.”
Fast-forwarding a little (many more details later), Berube is working diligently toward building a business venture out of what can truly be called his discovery, this blend of two already-recognized memory-loss therapies — music and pictures. It’s called Moving Pictures Inc., featuring a product called ‘photographic journeys,’ or what he terms “cognitive memory therapy for the 21st century.”
The marketing materials recently developed for the product, a clinically based digital video production, says it “walks through a lifetime in pictures and music.” In doing so, that brochure continues, the journey “aims to improve face and name recognition, enhance self-identity, and reduce stress for the entire family.”
The literature makes heavy use of phrases like ‘aims to’ and ‘strives to,’ and the word ‘can’ (rather than ‘will’), because, in reality, the method has been used with only a handful of individuals, but with a high degree of success, said Berube. He noted that ongoing clinical trials involve several dozen people and, he predicts, add several layers of statistical evidence that this process can be a solution for some of those suffering memory loss due to Alzheimer’s, dementia, and head injuries.
Indeed, while developing his product, Berube has studied the suspected link between music and memories extensively, and said his development supports the findings of Petr Janata, an associate professor of Psychology at the University of California Davis and its Center for Mind and Body. Recently, Janata has done extensive work on the relationship between music, emotion, and memory, studying what he calls “music-evoked autobiographical memories.”
“What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in your head,” he said in a press release detailing his work. “It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye; we can see the association between those two things — the music and the memories.”
For this issue, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at the concept Berube has developed, as well as the business he’s looking to build from it.
A Discovery of Note
Berube says that, 16 years after the auto accident, he still has issues with short- and long-term memory. Unfortunately, though, one thing he remembers clearly is that early-morning mishap that changed his life in so many ways.
Brought to the surface by hypnosis for one of the legal proceedings that ensued, he said the memories have stayed with him. He remembers that he was heading home from MassMutual, where he worked as a systems analyst, at about 1 in the morning. His normal shift had him working until 3 a.m., but with advances in technology, he and others in that role were able to do more of their work from home, and on this morning he was intent on doing so.
Having made the trek down State Street at that time of day countless times before, Berube said he knew the sequence of traffic lights by heart. As he approached the light at State and Main, it was red, but he knew it would be green by the time he reached the intersection. As he coasted through, however, the car coming south on Main went through a red light, he said, and hit him broadside, propelling his vehicle into the large office building at the corner.
The recovery from numerous injuries was long and difficult, he said, adding that, among other things, he suffered from what he called “unbearable headaches,” which set off deep depression. Later, there were seizures, and tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, has lingered for some time.
There were also the issues with memory and how his brain processed information, which made it impossible to go back to work as a systems analyst, said Berube, adding that, while the inability to resume his promising and fulfilling career was frustrating, moreso was coping — or failing to cope, as the case may be — with the many lost pieces of his personal life.
He was especially frustrated by the fact that he had to keep asking his children their names, even though one of them, his daughter, was essentially named after him; he is Stephen Michael, and she is Stephanie Michelle. “I ended up trying to tie it back that way, and it still didn’t work,” he said.
The memory loss and resulting depression ultimately led him to try various things to bring out recollections.
“I needed to find a way to start being able to look at my kids and know who they were,” he said. “I needed to bring back the memories; I knew we went to Disney — we were Disney freaks and still are to some extent. We had all these pictures and all this stuff, but I had no memories. All these things were a blank.”
And because the house was decorated largely with Disney — his son’s room was “all Lion King” and his daughter’s room was “one of the Disney princesses, I don’t remember which one” — he couldn’t escape the maddening inability to remember.
Eventually, Berube scanned a number of photographs of his children and created what he called “digital videos” of their lives. And when he blended these images with “Candy’s Room” (for his daughter) and “The River” (for his son), some of the memories started coming back.
“I remembered this party we had for our daughter when she was a year and half old. I remember her getting picked up by a Hawaiian dancer. I was able to find that, and when you find things like that, other memories come back.”
Berube told BusinessWest that merely looking at old pictures didn’t trigger such memories. Rather, it was the blending of sequential pictures and music that has meaning in one’s life. Using “Candy’s Room” as an example, he said the song isn’t really about a child’s room, but to him it is, and more than that, it’s a key to unlocking memories of time spent with his daughter.
“That song, and watching that video over and over and over again for hours a day, day after day, week after week, eventually brought things back,” he said, “and it allowed me to start moving forward and not be so depressed about not remembering their names.
“The music, to me, is the key, but it has to be their music,” he said. “It has to be that individual’s favorite music from when they were growing up.”
For the Record
As he talked about how he would eventually take his concept and build a business around it, Berube said that this, too, was a long, trying process. Actually, since the accident, there have a few other forays into entrepreneurship, none of them successful.
One of these was a company that centered around the use of video to help children learn sports activities, such as hitting a baseball or shooting free throws in basketball. It was a good concept, Berube insists, noting that he sunk considerable resources into the venture, but it never took off.
The road to Moving Pictures was paved with the help of a hobby of sorts that he developed — creating videos detailing the lives of the recently deceased. He had created several of these videos, shown continuously at funerals, when he was approached by that aforementioned woman whose mother had Alzheimer’s.
“They got me the pictures, and I sat down at the computer and scanned them in,” he recalled, “and it struck me that her pictures were organized exactly like mine were for my kids. What this woman did was ask her siblings to give her pictures of them and their mom; almost every picture had the mom in it, and each would have a kid and the mom — they were in sequence, with the kid and the mom, until the kid was an adult.
“That brought me right back to my computer in Agawam trying to remember my kids,” he continued. “And I kept the photos in that order. I forget the music I used, but it was great music.”
After that encounter in the supermarket, Berube starting thinking that there was much more to the two incidents than coincidence, and so he continued to do research into the broad subject of memory and, more specifically, the ways in which pictures and music — two therapies that had been tried individually, but not in concert — could help people recover moments from their past.
His research took him to Janata’s work, which seemed to bolster Berube’s contention that music, coupled with carefully arranged pictures, could restore some memories.
“He [Janata] wired people so he could tell which parts of the brain would light up when subjects heard certain things,” Berube explained. “He found that, when people hear songs that they like, a certain part of the brain lights up.”
Other researchers have found that what triggers the memories isn’t the music as much as the emotional attachment to the music, he continued. “As certain songs are played, I can feel myself changing with the song, because each one brings you to parts of your life that your brain is attached to. When you’re young, and you listen to the same song over and over again, like I did with Springsteen, you have emotions tied to that song; that’s what you’re storing. The emotional part is stored forever, so when that song comes up, the part that stores the emotion … lights up.
“We hope that, by lighting up a part of the brain that we know works, we can reteach people,” he continued, adding that, by seeing pictures and hearing music, Berube believes individuals can relearn peoples’ names and remember things from their past.
As he explained how the photographic journeys process works, Berube popped in a display video, the same one that’s on the company’s Web site, www.journeys2remember.com. A composite of random photographs, the video doesn’t represent an actual family, but shows how the process works. Starting with the subject male’s wife, it proceeds to show photographs of an extended family, including children and grandchildren.
Each individual is moved digitally to the center of the photograph, and their name appears on or near the image. There is accompanying information as well, such as ‘first daughter’ and ‘oldest grandchild.’ This chronological collage is then set to music that, in most cases, the individual would have listened to in his or her teens and 20s.
Moving Pictures was incorporated roughly a year ago, and over the course of that time Berube has been hard at work trying to get a business started with what he considers a sound idea, but limited capital. Along the way, five photographic journeys were essentially given away to selected clients, with four of them experiencing positive results — meaning a real difference in their ability to recognize people and recall events — and the fifth at such an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s that improvement should not have been expected, in Berube’s estimation.
After some false starts with the concept, some venture capital has been raised, and an office has been created in Feeding Hills. The plan moving forward is to aggressively market the concept through the Internet and pitches to individual assisted-living communities.
Clinical trials involving perhaps 150 individuals are currently underway, Berube noted, adding that he is confident that the trials will yield considerably more statistical support for the product and act as a strong selling tool.
All the Way Home
Time will tell if photographic journeys can make the leap from clinical concept to successful business product.
Berube knows that, like his road back from his accident and the subsequent physical and neurological ailments, this trek is a long and winding road.
But he firmly believes that the memories summoned by photos of his children and some old Springsteen songs are not the product of chance, but rather a clinical success story he hopes to rewrite for people around the world.
In short, he believes this product, this breakthrough, was — as his favorite musician might say — born to run.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]