Sep 27 2019

How Mandela Effected Are You?

The Mandela Effect remains a fascinating phenomenon, although not for the reason that some people believe. I discussed the basic effect before – people often remember historical events as being different than current evidence reveals, and sometimes many people misremember the events in a similar way. This has led some to argue that it is not our memories that are flawed, but the universe has actually shifted reality of time.

I recently came across a site that tests how “Mandela Effected” you are with a list of ten questions. First, should it be “Mandela Affected?” Affect is the verb, effect is the noun. But it’s how affected are you by the Mandela Effect. We’ll call it poetic license.

Some of the questions on the test are interesting examples of the Mandela Effect. However, the test itself is needlessly horrible, rendering the results meaningless. First, they show pictures relating to the question. While they warn you that the picture may not be accurate, it’s obvious that they will have a biasing effect on the results. Second, the questions are a forced binary choice. There’s no, “I don’t know” option. A 5 point Likert scale would be better – definitely A, probably A, not sure, probably B, definitely B. I know this isn’t meant to be a scientific test, it’s just for fun, but why make it so blatantly terrible? It’s bad enough to spoil the fun.

But in any case – the reason I like discussing the Mandela Effect is because of what it really reflects. It is not a glitch in the Matrix, nor a shifting of alternate universes. It is a combination of factors, mostly the fallibility of memory and the complexity of cultural influences and evolution. When there is a mismatch between our memory or perception and reality, however, we tend to first assume there is a problem with reality, rather than a problem with our brains. This is especially true in pathological conditions, when the brain is broken. We have a hard time perceiving the deficit, and rather assume the world is broken.

But even in neurologically healthy individuals, it’s hard to be slapped in the face with the fallibility of our own memories, and so the notion that there is an explanation outside the firing of our neurons is emotionally compelling. If there is on big point I have tried to hammer home on this blog, however, it’s that our perception of reality is a constructed fiction, which is biased and flawed and breaks down in many ways. It’s obviously good enough to get us through the day, but cannot be relied upon to be detailed and accurate. So the Mandela Effect, if conceived of as the misremembering, sometimes collectively, of cultural or historical facts, is an interesting phenomenon that can be a fun way to spread understanding of these fallibilities.

Let’s look at some of the examples from the Mandela Effect test I linked to above to demonstrate how the real reason for the effect is more interesting. The first question (spoiler – you  may want to take the test first) asks if there is a gospel according to Judas. I know the correct answer, but was still not sure what answer they were going for. Scholars have discovered a Gospel of Judas. There are, in fact, many gospels outside the four that are currently canon in the New Testament. But was the question referring only to the New Testament? It’s ambiguous, but I decide they meant, was there a Gospel of Judas at all, and that is what they meant.

However, a suspect that most people are not aware of this fact, and never were. They simply know the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. So getting that answer incorrect is not evidence at all that they were “Mandela Effected,” but rather that they never heard of the Gospel of Judas. In fact it seems like a set up question.

There is also a question asking whether or not there is a balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. I was highly confident that there is a balcony scene in this play, in fact it’s iconic. But the real answer is that in the original Shakespeare, there is no balcony scene. In fact, there were no balconies in England at the time, and the word itself did not exist. Of course, the play is set in Verona, Italy, where there were balconies at the time. Shakespeare may or may not have known this, however.

How modern audiences have come to associate Romeo and Juliet with the famous balcony scene that never was is an interesting tale, that has nothing to do with the Mandela Effect (except it is one of the phenomena that contributes to the perception of a Mandela Effect). Shakespeare and his plays fell into and out of favor over the centuries, and was not as universally popular and revered as he is today. As the Atlantic article I linked to above notes:

But far more popular was Otway’s 1679 play, The History and Fall of Caius Marius, which grafts dialogue, characters, and plot from Romeo and Juliet onto an ancient Roman military and political struggle drawn from Plutarch.

Otway’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet did contain a balcony scene, with almost the exact same dialogue. When Shakespeare’s plays later regained popularity, productions of Romeo and Juliet incorporated the balcony interpretation of that scene, which eventually became iconic of the play itself.

That is the nature of culture. There is a complex web of influences. Humans are imitators, we adapt, incorporate, borrow, and interpret. It’s all good, a part of human nature and an interesting part of culture and history. I like tracing the influences of any current work back through history. Often an iconic story is reimagined by every generation, tweaked to be more accessible and meaningful to contemporary audiences. Great works therefore evolve over time, reflecting as much as influencing the culture.

Attributing any of this to a Mandela Effect misses the real, and far more interesting, reality. In a way reality is changing, but it is only our perception of reality. Historian James Burke, however, who wrote “The Day the Universe Changed” argues that in a very real way when our conception of reality changes, for us the universe does in fact change. That, I think, is the real Mandela Effect.

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