Oct 24 2017

The Mandela Effect

mandelaeffect1Do you remember when Nelson Mandela was killed in prison in the 1980s? Apparently there are a lot of people who, for some reason, had this memory. Of course, Mandela was not killed in prison, he survived and went on to become president of South Africa.

This false memory, however, gave rise to the term, “The Mandela Effect,” which refers to remembering some detail of the past that is simply not true. There is a disconnect between our memory and reality.

This should not be surprising to anyone, especially anyone even slightly familiar with memory research. Our memories are constantly changing, they merge, details shift, and entire memories can be confabulated. If there is a conflict between our memory and documented reality, it is clearly our memory that is at fault.

Despite this obvious answer, there are groups of people who feel that the Mandela effect represents something else. The disconnect between our memories and reality is due, they argue, to a shifting in reality, perhaps due to a crossing of the streams between parallel universes. Alternatively it can be a glitch in the Matrix that happens when they apply a new patch or expansion.  Between physical reality and memory I would say that memory is the one that is slippery and changing, not reality.

Their alleged evidence for the parallel universe interpretation is that many people have the same false memory. OK, I will acknowledge that this deserves an explanation, but again parallel universes would not be anywhere near the top of my list.

There are many lists of common Mandela Effect examples, and here is a subReddit where people discuss their false memories. These are fun reminders of how unreliable our memories are. The one that really surprised me was the girl with braces in the movie Moonraker. In an online survey 47% of people said that Dolly’s braces were the feature that first attracted Jaws to her, but Dolly never had braces. That is a false memory.

In the SubReddit discussing this particular example, one person explains that they viewed old VHS tape and the tape shows that Dolly has no braces, to which another responds: “Thats how MEs work, no proof.”

Of course there is a problem with any belief that is based on there being no evidence.

So what can be going on here? Many MEs are simply misremembering small details. It wasn’t, “Sex in the City,” it was always, “Sex and the City.” In this case many people’s memories drifted over to a slightly easier to say and perhaps more intuitive phrase. In the same way, it isn’t, “Interview with a Vampire,” it’s “Interview with the Vampire.” But,  “With the” doesn’t quite role off the tongue as easily as “With a.”

Other MEs probably occur from confusing common words. It isn’t “Jiffy” peanut butter, it’s “Jif”. But “jiffy” is a word (I’ll be there in a jiffy) and so many people just substitute a known similar word for the brand name.

Other interesting example include the fact that Hannibal Lecter never said, “Hello, Clarice.” While I have a clear memory of someone saying, “Well hello, Clarice,” that is probably a memory of someone else imitating Lecter. That is a very common phenomenon. Carl Sagan never said, “Billions and billions,” but Johnny Carson did when making fun of Sagan. Cagney never said, “You dirty rat,” but every one of his impersonators did.

Essentially our memories tend to consolidate onto more pithy, concise, poetic, and easier to say phrases. Many people share these false memories simply because we have similar brains that tend to make similar mistakes. This is also partly how language evolves – phrases and words tend to get shortened, simplified, and easier to say.

Also similar to language, these false memories can spread. We contaminate each-other’s memories (this is the meme idea), and we can even think of a competition of memories in the ecosystem of our culture with the versions that resonate the most predominating (even if they are not accurate).

Many MEs are probably due to confabulation. For example, in one episode of Spongebob (which I watched with my daughters), Patrick reveals an embarrassing picture of Spongebob at the Christmas party. However, he never actually shows the picture itself. But I have a memory of the picture.

There are two possibilities here. I am remembering another embarrassing picture of Spongebob from another episode and merging the two memories. Or, I imagined the picture and my imagination became a memory.

Now, of course, people actually made possible pictures of Spongebob (because the internet has everything) and so my memory is contaminated by these pictures.

The Mandela Effect is a fun example of the vagaries of culture and human memory. It is not evidence of parallel universes or the Matrix, however, because such interpretations rely on their being no actual evidence to validate these alleged effects. Further, they are massive violations of Occam’s razor.

While the Mandela Effect can be fun, I am most amazed by how fallible my own memory is.

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