The Mandela Effect: Why So Many Recall Events That Never Occurred

The funeral cortege of former South African president Nelson Mandela makes its way along Madiba Street on Dec. 11, 2013, in Pretoria, South Africa. Many people mistakenly believe Mandela died in the 1980s, giving rise to a phenomenon called "the Mandela effect," or clearly remembering something that did not happen. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Countless people have watched the "Star Wars" movies, and most of them will tell you that the bumbling droid named C-3PO is gold all over. But did you know that C-3PO actually has one silver leg? And what's that immortal line Darth Vader uttered in the movie "The Empire Strikes Back": "Luke, I am your father"? Nope, he actually said, "No, I am your father."

Both are widespread examples of what's called the Mandela effect, false memories that are shared among a large population of people – a collective misremembering of sorts. The phrase was coined around 2009 by self-described paranormal consultant Fiona Broome, who used it to explain the phenomenon where many people around the world believed that the South African leader died in prison in the 1980s. In fact he was released in 1990, later served as president of the country and died in 2013 at the age of 95.

Broome's theory is that at all times there are multiple realities of each universe (the multiverse), and that within each universe there are variations of objects, events and people. So, memories of those "incorrect" shared moments are not really false – they are just instances where parallel universes crossed paths for an instant. (The multiverse theory is usually advanced for physics concepts.)

Science has other explanations for how the Mandela effect happens. Much of it boils down to the fact that human memory is notoriously unreliable. In this age of digital technologies, we often equate our brains with computer hard drives, organic storage bins for our experiences. However, our prefrontal cortices, where many memories are stored, don't work with the same precision as a hard drive.

UCLA Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience Caitlin Aamodt says that based on what we know about the brain, we can make inferences about what contributes to the Mandela effect. "Memories are organized in the brain so that similar memories are stored in nearby neurons. When a memory is recalled, those cells are able to change their connections, which allows for the addition of new information," she says via email. "But because 'neurons that fire together wire together,' sometimes false memories can emerge from erroneous connections."

While we might think of recalling memories as solidifying them in our brains, science seems to suggest otherwise. Recalling a memory often triggers other memories in the process, often intertwining various scenarios and people in new ways, a sort of "reconsolidating" of the information in our brains.

Human beings are also vulnerable to the concept of confabulation, an error or misinterpretation regarding a memory without a conscious attempt to mislead. Confabulation occurs when the brain is attempting to fill in the blanks for incomplete memories. The speaker may mix and match similar experiences and information in order to complete the story in his or her mind, complete with details and emotional responses, certain that the tale is true. This kind of behavior happens in people suffering from neurological issues, such as brain damage or Alzheimer's, but healthy individuals confabulate, too.

The Mandela Effect Individually vs. Collectively

OK, so that might explain why one person misremembers something. But why would lots of people misremember the same "facts"? Aamodt points to a 2016 psychology study showing that 88 percent of people in an online survey incorrectly picked Alexander Hamilton as a U.S. president from a list of possible candidates. Hamilton's recognition rate was much higher than that of some actual presidents like Franklin Pierce and Chester Arthur.

"Because of the shared contextual association, many different people formed the same false memory that Hamilton himself was a president," she says. Hamilton was actually the first secretary of treasury, but since he is associated with many early U.S. presidents and has a hit Broadway show with his name as the title, one could be forgiven for mistaking him for a former commander-in-chief.

Aamodt also notes the power of suggestion. "Suggestibility is the tendency to believe what others suggest to be true," she says. "This is why lawyers are prohibited from asking witnesses leading questions that suggest a specific answer."

These days, there's also the viral power of the internet and its ability to magnify human error, suggestibility and gullibility. If one person vociferously claims that the actor Sinbad starred in a '90s movie about a genie titled "Shazaam," and can proffer plot details that strike a chord with other readers, this might generate a false narrative that many people believe must be true or claim to remember themselves. In actuality, the actor in the '90s movie about a genie was Shaquille O'Neal, and the film was called "Kazaam."

Examples of the Mandela effect are more common than you might think. Are the popular cartoon bears called, "The Berenstein Bears" or "The Berenstain Bears"? It's actually the latter, something that shocks many people who remember reading this books as children. And do you remember a famous portrait of England's King Henry VIII grasping a turkey leg? So do a lot of other people ... but it never existed.

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