Human memory is a powerful but tricky thing. Memories shape our identity. Evocative senses — especially smells — can instantly trigger vivid memories. But memory can also mislead us. We have probably all encountered situations in which we misremembered things — from the trivial, like “Where did I put down my keys?” to the significant, such as how we met someone.
Even collective memories, shared by large numbers of people, can turn out to be oddly wrong, a condition that has been dubbed the Mandela Effect. So, what is false memory? And what does it tell us about ourselves and the world around us?
What Is False Memory?
The Mandela Effect is named for South African statesman and civil rights activist Nelson Mandela. When he died in 2013, news of his death stirred up some surprising — and mysterious — memories. People around the world reported that they remembered hearing of his death decades earlier, in the 1980s. Some even vividly recalled watching his funeral on television, according to PRI.
One of the people who shared this phantom memory was, as Snopes reported, self-described paranormal researcher Fiona Broome. She wrote about it on her website and dubbed collective errors of memory the “Mandela Effect.” A more general and established term for memory errors — both individual and collective — is “confabulation.”
The Mandela Effect is not limited to people misremembering news events. It applies to other collective memory mistakes. As Snopes recounted, one of the most popular examples is the children’s book series and TV cartoon, “The Berenstain Bears,” which many people misrecall as “The Berenstein Bears.”
In another odd misremembering, according to Snopes, if you ask people how many states are in the United States, a surprising number will say 52, not 50 (which is correct).
Stumbling Across the River of Time?
As Snopes speculated, the Mandela Effect could be a consequence of multiverse theory — the proposition that our entire observable universe is only one of “many worlds,” representing different ways that a time stream might have developed.
Thus, people who remember seeing Mandela’s funeral in the 1980s may not be simply misremembering. They might have somehow slipped across from an alternate history where Nelson Mandela did die in the 1980s. In our world, he was imprisoned for many years. Likewise, people who recall “The Berenstein Bears” may have grown up in a parallel world where the bears’ name really did end in -stein.
All of this is fun stuff — but alas, there is a hitch. There is a famous saying, attributed to astronomer Carl Sagan, that “‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.'” As David Deming points out in an article published in the journal Philosophia, this argument has its own complications.
If the people who share these memories did all come from an alternate universe, wouldn’t they also share other memories of well-known news events that happened differently in that universe?
It’s a bit of a jump to assume that all those people somehow fell across the time stream from an alternate universe. Skeptic examined some of the factors that lead to this conclusion-jumping.
Tricks the Brain Plays
Mass confabulation and the Mandela Effect point to the subtleties of how the human mind works. In the case of the Berenstain Bears, “-stein” is a much more common word ending than “-stain.” Chances are that many of us never even noticed the actual spelling until it was brought to our attention.
As for people who say the US has 52 states, said Snopes, this suggests a brain slip, with people remembering that a deck of cards has 52 cards instead.
In the case of Nelson Mandela, he vanished from public view during his lengthy imprisonment, so it’s no surprise that many people thought he must have died. But exactly why and how their brains went on to construct vivid “memories” of a funeral remains a puzzle.
All of these examples suggest that memory is not like a recording, but more like a narrative that the brain reconstructs out of multiple building blocks — blocks that can sometimes get mixed up or misplaced.
What is the Mandela Effect? Insight to the complexities of the human mind. And, for science fiction writers and Hollywood, a pretty good excuse to play with multiverse concepts.