The Mandela Effect: Science, Superstition, and Memory

I had never heard of the Mandela Effect until a few weeks ago when a coworker brought it up at lunch. She told me of several examples and I was immediately fascinated.

The Mandel Effect is when a communal memory of something happening does not match up with archival evidence, and “mainstream” memory. These differences of memory are different from simple misremembrances because they are generally shared, or very similar between people who had no direct contact or discussion of these differences of memory until very recently.

Fiona Broome, from mandelaeffect.com/about

The term seems to have been coined by blogger Fiona Broome and one other person during a conversation at Dragon Con sometime before 2010. The term derives from a conversation she had with other people who expressed diverging memories regarding the death of South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and former president Nelson Mandela. According to The Nelson Mandela Foundation, he died at his home in Johannesburg on December 5, 2013. However, in spite of overwhelming reporting and evidence, many people remember that Nelson Mandela died in prison sometime in the 1980s.

For me, it’s a fact. Whether or not anyone else shares that memory, I know that I saw his funeral on the TV in the 1980s. And, many elements of what I recall match what others report. – Fiona Broome, Mandelaeffect.com

Examples

Some of the examples cited for this phenomenon relate to spelling. There are people who recall the children’s book series The Berenstain Bears being titled The Berenstein Bears, and some divergent memories exist as to the spelling of Mother Teresa’s name and the date of her canonization as a saint. Some remember a movie entitled Shazam starring Sinbad, that does not actually exist. There are varied memories about the exact dates of various historical events, geographic locations of places, and more.

Theories about this phenomenon abound, ranging from the absurd to the more scientific. It is important to note at this point the importance of “the burden of proof.” While some of these theories are technically possible, they remain unsubstantiated. Just like you cannot prove that there is not an invisible, floating teacup in orbit (and should not have to) so too do some of these theories fall short.

For a more thorough treatment on some of these examples, check out this article at Snopes.com and the aptly named Debunking Mandela Effects website.

The Multiverse, Holodeck, and Conspiracy Theories

Fiona Broome and many of her fans adhere to the idea “that parallel realities exist, and we’ve been “sliding” between them without realizing it.” This is derived from the scientific theory of a multiverse that is entirely too complicated to address here. Instead, we would direct your attention to this podcast by the Liturgists for an explanation that might be on the level a nonphysicist could understand.

Another possibility espoused by Broome and her fans is the “holodeck theory” which posits that we’re all experiencing some advanced virtual reality simulation, and the memories not lining up with the records are just a computer glitch. Notably, it is the records that are wrong, not the shared memories.

There are likely those who would attribute some of these instances of misremembrance to some sort of cover-up or conspiracy, though Broome explicitly rejects this possibility.

Psychological Explanations

None of us likes to believe that a memory we are confident is accurate is, in fact, completely wrong.- Michael Shermer, author of Skeptic: Viewing the World With a Rational Eye

According to phychcentral.com, “confabulation is a memory disturbance in which a person confuses imagined scenarios with actual memories with no intent to deceive.”

The most likely explanation for these memories is not all that exciting. As you may have noticed in the years you have been alive, your brain does not act like a perfect audio-video recorder. You cannot recall everything that has ever happened in your life with perfect clarity and accuracy. This is because, as psychology tells us, memory is constructive and not reproductive. Your brain builds memories out of selected materials that it gets from your senses.

Memory’s errors are as fascinating as they are important. They can be divided into seven fundamental transgressions or “sins,” which I call transience, absent mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias and persistence. Just like the ancient seven deadly sins — pride, anger, envy, greed, gluttony, lust and sloth — the memory sins occur frequently in everyday life and can have serious consequences for all of us. – Daniel Schacter, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University

Harvard University Psychologist Daniel Schacter describes seven different ways our memory can mess with us:

Transience—Over time, our memories fade and distort. Certain things you remember quite clearly from earlier this week (such as Donald Trump’s inauguration) will be forgotten or inaccurately remembered years from now.

Absent-mindedness—Since memories have to be encoded, sort of like writing them in your brain, for you to remember them, sometimes a lack of attention can cause you to fail to encode the memory.

Blocking—Sometimes we find ourselves unable to remember something in spite of our high level of focus and attention.

Misattribution—Assigning a memory to the wrong source. You might remember where you heard something incorrectly or mix up fictional and factual information.

Suggestibility—Memories sometimes are “implanted as a result of leading questions, comments or suggestions when a person is trying to call up a past experience.”

Bias—What we already believe shapes the new memories that we make.

Persistence—When memories that we would prefer to forget keep resurfacing.

Conclusion

The reality is that our memories are one of the primary ways we relate to the real world, but we cannot always trust them. Zachary often likes to use the mantra “Of thine own self, be always suspicious.” It is for this reason that forensic evidence is often given preference over eye-witness testimony in court cases. This same phenomenon is also likely behind the diversity of perception preserved in religious texts like the Jewish and Christian Bibles. While holodeck and alternate reality theories are fascinating and mind-bending, they may actually be less troubling than the truth: we cannot always trust our memories.

Ironically, while editing this article, I got the names of two of the quoted individuals backwards in my memory and had to go back through the notes to convince myself I wasn’t crazy. – Zachary

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