The Mandela Effect
Human memory is truly a peculiar thing. We are astonished by its scope and power, but we also recognize its dismaying fallibility. For years, scientists and researchers in the field of cognitive psychology and neuroscience have been studying extensively how memory works, but while they have taken great strides in gaining a better understanding of it, much of human memory remains a mystery. One thing about it remains certain though – memory isn’t perfect at all. And proof of this imperfection is the phenomenon of false memories – erroneous or unconsciously fabricated recollections of past events that seemingly feel so real and true that those who experience them often refuse to accept any evidence contrary to what they think they know or recall.
While the topic of errors in human memory, in general, is a fascinating subject matter that has gained the interest of curious men and women of science, one type of glitch in human memory has generated a lot of buzz in recent years, and people of the Internet refer to it as the “Mandela Effect.”
What is the Mandela Effect
The Mandela Effect is essentially defined as a collective misremembering of a fact or event. It refers to a phenomenon where a group of people all misremember the same detail, event or physicality.
The term was coined by self-described “paranormal consultant” Fiona Broome who claims to have become aware of the phenomenon after discovering that she shared a particular false memory with several other people. This memory was their incorrect knowledge that South African human rights activist and president Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s when in reality, he passed away more recently in 2013. Beyond this particular memory she allegedly shared with other people, she also began to notice other examples of the phenomenon, leading her to believe that these instances are not simply errors in memory. They exceed the normal range of forgetfulness because for some reason that remains unclear, other people seem to have identical memories of something that supposedly never came to be in our reality.
Examples of the Mandela Effect
One particular example of the Mandela Effect that has generated a very loud online buzz involves the children’s book series and animated TV show “The Berenstain Bears.” As it turns out, a good number of people who grew up knowing the series apparently remember its title to be “The Berenstein Bears,” with the name ending in “ein” instead of “ain.” Some of those who recall this false memory even go so far as to claim that the fictional bears’ surname was changed along the way to make the series seem “less Jewish.”
Another example of the Mandela Effect is the recollection of many people that the United States has 51 or 52 states, and not 50. At present, the United States of America is composed of 50 states, with Washington D.C. considered as a federal district. But the US also has several unincorporated territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa, which could be the reason why some people have the erroneous notion that there are more than 50 states considered to be a part of the Union. While this misconception is generally expected to have come from non-US residents, there are U.S. citizens that allegedly claim that 51 or 52 states was what they recall they were taught by their educators at school in their younger years.
The last example of the Mandela Effect that we will briefly discuss involves HBO’s popular TV series “Sex and the City.” According to some people, the series was originally named as “Sex in the City” until the network censors decided to make it less overtly suggestive of people engaging in sexual activities. Many people remember that for the first season, the show’s title was originally “Sex in the City,” while some maintain this to be the real title for its entire run. But as far as our current reality is concerned, the title of this classic cable TV show had been nothing else but “Sex AND the City.”
Explanations for the Mandela Effect
How do we explain the fact that many people share the same false memory? Because of the popularity of the Mandela Effect as a phenomenon in recent years, the discussion about the topic has sparked an intense debate that has trapped the issue in a tug of war between two sides – the side of logic and mainstream science against the side of paranormal territory and fringe science.
One far-out theory based on the principles of quantum mechanics argue that those who have personally experienced the Mandela Effect may have actually “slid” between parallel realities. According to this theory, those who grew up in a universe where “Berenstein” Bears is spelled with an “ein” found themselves waking up one day in an alternate universe where the title of the children’s book is spelled as “Berenstain” Bears with an “ain.”
Another far-fetched theory posits that unbeknownst to ourselves, we are actually within a virtual reality the provides us with a manufactured human experience. And according to this theory, this virtual world is prone to “glitches,” which in turn, cause inconsistencies in our perception of reality.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of wild speculation, these theories bordering on science fiction yield no practical explanation or testable hypotheses. And from a logical and scientific standpoint, nor are they necessary, since some experts don’t consider the Mandela Effect as a phenomenon at all that deserves to be distinguished from existing types of false memories already well-established in the field of psychology.
A leading psychological theory sees memory as constructive and not reproductive – which means the brain “creates” memories out of various bits and pieces of information it was fed with as opposed to just accurately playing them back like a recording. Memories are not pure; they are fallible. And there are several psychological and social factors that can disrupt and distort the recollection of a particular memory, which includes but are not limited to bias, association, imagination, and expectations.
From a psychological standpoint, it is generally agreed on that there is normally an identifiable solution and explanation to most cases of the Mandela Effect, and many of these theories or key factors have nothing to do with parallel universes and virtual realities.
One key psychological factor in many cases of the Mandela Effect is what is referred to as the “misinformation effect.” Misinformation affects people’s reports of their own memory. This happens when information presented at a later time interferes with the ability to retain the previous information gathered for a particular memory. In essence, the new information received works backward in time to distort a person’s memory of the original event. Misinformation Effect reflects two of the cardinal sins of memory: suggestibility – or the influence of other’s expectations on our own memory – and misattribution – or information attributed to an incorrect source. Studies about this phenomenon have raised issues over the reliability and permanence of human memory.
Confirmation bias is also one of the factors that could help explain the Mandela Effect. This type of bias is described as a person’s tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs and hypotheses. Those who are seeking cases supporting the Mandela Effect will often be more easily persuaded by other claims that supposedly validate the phenomenon. And just as they are so easily inclined to agree with such claims supporting the Mandela Effect, these people are also just as prone to discarding any evidence or claim that is contrary to their belief in the phenomenon’s existence.
But out of the many existing psychological concepts and theories about the frailties of human memory that have been raised over decades of research, perhaps the psychological concept that is most similar with the Mandela Effect is what psychologists refer to as “confabulation.” Confabulation is a clinical term used to refer to memory defects experienced by patients with brain damage, but it also describes a common phenomenon that involves the embellishment of truth when recounting events, and the non-deliberate and a rarely-conscious invention of facts to fill in gaps in memory. People who have this type of memory disturbance produce incorrect memories from the most trivial details – which is often the case in the Mandela Effect – up to the more complex fabrications as well. Those who produce such misinterpreted memories typically resist any contradictory evidence to what they recall.
Although it might be very tempting to believe that the Mandela Effect is evidence of the existence of parallel realities or proof that our universe is nothing more than glitchy simulation, these kinds of speculations have yet to pass the requirements established by mainstream science that will allow them to be recognized as real theories worthy of consideration. And in light of known and widely-accepted cognitive phenomena that can give rise to shared false memories, most of us are more inclined to believe that well-known cognitive errors sufficiently explain the Mandela Effect and that there is no need to introduce concepts like parallel dimensions or alternate realities to explain the fallibility of human memory. And had Fiona Broome been a cognitive psychologist instead of a psychic ghost hunter, perhaps the term Mandela Effect might have never existed at all.
Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the Mandela Effect is still a fascinating topic of interest regarding the quirks of human memory, while also serving as an example that human truth can actually be much stranger than fiction.