Collective False Memories: What’s Behind the ‘Mandela Effect’?

By Caitlin Aamodt | February 16, 2017 1:45 pm


Would you trust a memory that felt as real as all your other memories, and if other people confirmed that they remembered it too? What if the memory turned out to be false? This scenario was named the ‘Mandela effect’ by the self-described ‘paranormal consultant’ Fiona Broome after she discovered that other people shared her (false) memory of the South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s.

Is a shared false memory really due to a so-called ‘glitch in the matrix’, or is there some other explanation for what’s happening? Broome attributes the disparity to the many-worlds or ‘multiverse’ interpretation of quantum mechanics.

When not directly observed, electrons and other subatomic particles diffract like waves, only to behave like particles when a measurement is made. Essentially, it’s as if these particles exist in multiple places simultaneously until directly observed. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger explained this strange concept with the ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ thought experiment in 1935. If a cat were placed in a box with a radioactive-decay-detector rigged to break a flask of poison when activated, a decaying particle existing as a wave would yield two simultaneous macroscale realities – one where the cat is alive and one where the cat is dead. Although, upon observation, one could see that the cat is either dead or alive, some quantum physicists such as the late Hugh Everett III – who first proposed the many-worlds interpretation in 1957 – have speculated that both realities exist … but in separate, parallel universes.

The Discover editors talked about the ‘Mandela effect’ in the fourth episode of “It’s Only Science.” Listen now, or subscribe on iTunes.

It’s important to keep in mind that the many-worlds interpretation was developed to explain the results of physics experiments and not the Mandela effect. Nonetheless, Broome believes that her shared memory isn’t actually false, and that she and others who remember a different past were actually in a parallel reality with a different timeline that somehow got crossed with our current one.

More recently, people on Reddit and other websites have identified further instances of the Mandela effect, including shared memories that the children’s book series ‘The Berenstain Bears’ used to be spelled ‘Berenstein Bears’ and that there was a movie called Shazaam in the 1990s starring the US comedian Sinbad.

Regardless of what really happened, there’s no denying that shared false memories exist. Can neuroscience provide an alternative hypothesis for what’s really going on, without evoking quantum physics? There are several concepts that might explain something so strange. First, it’s important to remember that a memory is made up of a network of neurons in the brain that store the memory. The physical location of a memory in the brain is often called an ‘engram’ or ‘memory trace’. During consolidation, the memory trace is transferred from temporary sites such as the hippocampus to permanent storage sites in the prefrontal cortex.

Prior learning creates a framework for similar memories to be stored in close proximity to each other. This framework is known as a ‘schema’. One bit of evidence for this comes from a 2016 study on human semantic memory – long-term memories of ideas and concepts devoid of personal detail. To parse the terrain, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that similar words are stored in adjacent regions of the brain, and even created a ‘semantic map’ of language in the human cortex. Another recent study confirmed that shared memory traces are organised in similar ways from one individual to the next.

Although we might think of memories as being strengthened when recalled, the truth is actually more complex. Recalling a memory reactivates the neurons composing the memory trace, spurring them to form new connections. The altered circuitry then becomes stable again, and the memory is ‘reconsolidated’.

Reconsolidation can reinforce learning over time by strengthening neural connections and allowing the formation of new associations.

But obviously, taking a memory trace apart and putting it back together again makes that memory vulnerable to losing its fidelity. Here’s an example: at some point in their education, most Americans learn that Alexander Hamilton was a founding father but not a US president. However, when a study on false memory investigated whom most Americans identify as US presidents, the subjects were more likely to incorrectly select Hamilton but not several actual former presidents. This is likely to be because neurons encoding information about Hamilton were frequently activated at the same time as neurons encoding information about former presidents. Because neurons that ‘fire together wire together’, a connection between past presidents and Hamilton could gradually become strong enough that you would incorrectly remember Hamilton as a former president himself.

The Hamilton study could also help to explain why groups of people share false memories, as with the mystery of Shazaam. First, there was a children’s movie called Kazaam (1996) starring Shaquille O’Neal as a genie. Then, some people falsely remember another 1990s film, perhaps a rip-off of Kazaam, called Shazaam, starring the comedian Sinbad as a genie. Although Shazaam never existed, there are hundreds of people online who claim to remember it.

There are several reasons for this. First, a large number of general associations increase the probability that a false memory could emerge. Twin films with similar concepts being released at around the same time were common in the 1990s. Sinbad had a different movie out that same year called First Kid, which – like Kazaam – involves the hero coming to the aid of a wayward boy. And Sinbad had also previously released Houseguest (1995), the poster for which has an image of his head coming out of a mailbox, perhaps abstractly resembling a genie emerging from a lamp. Sinbad is an Arabic name, and the story of Sinbad the Sailor is often associated with encounters with genies. Sinbad’s bald head and goatee resemble a typical genie portrayed in the media. Sinbad also dressed up like a genie for a movie marathon he hosted in the 1990s, which almost certainly contributed to the ‘memory’ of Sinbad playing a genie. Besides similar associations laying the groundwork for a false memory to form, the other main factors in this instance are confabulation and suggestibility.

The Redditor EpicJourneyMan recounts an extremely detailed account of Shazaam from when he was working in a video store in the 1990s. In his post, he describes buying two copies of the movie and having to watch each several times to verify that it was damaged after renters complained. He then proceeds to describe the movie plot in great detail.

If Shazaam never existed, how does he have such a detailed memory of the movie? This is most likely an instance of confabulation, or the brain’s attempt to fill in missing memory gaps by adding fabricated facts and experiences. Unlike lying, confabulation is not intended to deceive, and the person confabulating fully believes that the ‘remembered’ details are real. Confabulation is associated with a wide array of neurological disorders, including stroke, brain injury, Alzheimer’s, Korsakoff syndrome, epilepsy and schizophrenia, but it can also happen in healthy subjects (as anyone with a memory of ‘President Hamilton’ can attest). Instances of confabulation in healthy people increase with age and are thought to be due to age-related changes to the medial temporal lobe, including the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex. These brain regions are important for memory encoding and retrieval, and fMRI studies over the past decade suggest that decreased functioning in these regions underlies false memory.

Confabulation seems to be more frequent in the face of repeatedly unpacking a memory; in other words, someone like EpicJourneyMan, who regularly ordered children’s videos and watched them to find damaged tape, is more likely to confabulate a specific memory from that material.

A third force driving the Mandela effect is suggestibility, the tendency to believe what others suggest to be true. When misinformation is introduced, it can actually compromise the fidelity of an existing memory. This is exactly why in a court of law an attorney can object to ‘leading questions’ that suggest a specific answer. In short, the leading question: ‘Do you remember the 1990s film Shazaam that starred Sinbad as a genie?’ not only suggests that such a film actually exists, but could even insert a false memory of having viewed it.

Although it might be tempting to believe that the Mandela effect is evidence that parallel realities exist or that our universe is a glitchy simulation, a true scientist must test his or her alternative hypothesis by trying to disprove it. In light of known cognitive phenomena that can give rise to shared false memories, it’s highly unlikely that some of us are actually from an alternative universe crossing timelines with the present one. Nonetheless, the Mandela effect is still a fascinating case study in the quirks of human memory. For those who love thinking about how the mind works, it is perhaps even an example of the truth being stranger than fiction.Aeon counter – do not remove


This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Memory & learning
  • Ronnie Solbakken

    I think the smoking gun of the “Mandela Effect” would be something like believing that Winnie the Pooh was actually a crocodile and not a bear. But it’s almost never even close to being that severe. It’s always about the smallest changes of a word – a single letter (or 3-4 letters in a longer word or sentence), and we know that these things are possible within the same reality.

    For instance, remembering Moomins when it’s actually called Moomin, is easy because Moomins is a anglicized pluralization of the finnish word Moomin. So imagine that americans are now told that it was Moomin all along, when all of them distinctly remember Moomins with an “s”.

    In this case, it’s not a reality shift, it’s just a translation. And in pretty much every other case I’ve read about, it’s about how people have popularized something that is incorrect, so obviously you remember an incorrect thing because the human brain is built to recognize patterns and not tiny, unimportant details.

    “Magic mirror on the wall” is inconsequentially different from “Mirror mirror on the wall”. “Mirror Mirror” has more rythmic word of mouth, which means that it’s almost self-explanatory that “mirror mirror” is gonna be remember. Especially if there exist subtitling or translations that literally changed it to “mirror mirror”.

    Also, keep in mind that the western world is largely christian. Some people may have chosen to avoid the word “magic”, perhaps in a time when the word was more popularly associated with psychedelic drugs or even a re-emergence of occultism or such. So it makes perfect sense if a children’s movie like Snow White would now tell people that “mirror mirror” is the correct whereas “magic mirror” is wrong.

    When you then later learn the truth, you think “magic mirror” is wrong because “mirror mirror” is literally what you remember.

    • Michael Arana

      You have it exactly in reverse. The differences WOULD BE small because usually the product is the result of a decision that was made at some point in the past. For example, in one reality VolkswagOn had no split in the middle of the logo. In the other reality, VolkswagEn has the split. A decision was made a long time ago, to decide between whether the logo should have the split or not. Reality split into two worlds where each event occurred. That’s roughly how the theory goes.

  • Uncle Al

    WHAT DO WE WANT? Evidenced-based science.
    WHEN DO WE WANT IT? After peer review.

    • tap

      I would prefer it BEFORE nonsense is released…

  • OWilson

    Humans are the most easily manipulated species from birth. It serves them well if the influences are naturally positive or benign, like some religions/

    But they can become demonic terrorists if subjected to other darker indoctrination.

    To paraphrase my learned associate Aristotle, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I’ll show you the man!”

    Or Lenin, who said, “Give me just one generation of youth, and I’ll transform the whole world!”

    Shouldn’t we be a little more careful about where we send our kids to school! :)

  • Cynthia Sue Larson

    Some of the most convincing cases of Mandela Effect have to do with groups of people notice, as in the actual case of Nelson Mandela, that someone who’s died is inexplicably now alive again. Typically, this may be a well-known celebrity on the periphery of one’s awareness, and usually not a close family member, colleague or friend. People noticing how strange it is that a particular celebrity is alive again thus seek an explanation at that time for what is going on–and why so many of us all remember, for example, that Nelson Mandela died while in prison many years ago. Now that cognitive psychologists such as Jerome Busemeyer and Peter Bruza are now documenting and writing books about such things as “Quantum Models of Cognition and Decision,” and finding probabilistic quantum mathematical models best describe human thinking–it seems we are getting starting to gain useful scientific tools for viewing Mandela effect and reality shift case studies such as these.

    I’ve been researching and documenting the Mandela Effect in my books, such as “Reality Shifts” and “Quantum Jumps” and on the realityshifters website since the 1990s, and have conducted surveys indicating that reality shifts and Mandela Effects are observed by a growing percentage of the population. I also host the (free) “Living the Quantum Dream” radio show and podcast out of Boston, Massachusetts, on the DreamVision7 Radio network where I interview researchers on the cutting edge of quantum sciences, such as Dr. Jerome Busemeyer, and Dr. Johnjoe McFadden.

    While people who have not yet experienced Mandela Effects and reality shifts might like to believe people’s minds are somehow fallible, I’d prefer to direct our attention to work on the placebo effect being done at Harvard that is starting to provide some solid scientific research to support the possibility that sometimes we really are experiencing jumps from one physical reality to another on a larger scale–much as we ought to expect to occasionally observe if quantum physics phenomena (like entanglement, superposition of states, tunneling and teleportation) are happening at all scales and beyond the so-called “quantum realm.”

    We might then notice that at the same time when Americans are enjoying a doubling of efficacy of the Placebo Effect, we also “just happen” to be also increasingly noticing the Mandela Effect.

    • Claude Taylor

      I see this effect on action everyday. For instance. My mother and I go to a store. I purchase an item. Bring it home and place it on my computer desk. The next morning when I awaken I notice the item is gone. I ask my mother if she moved it and she has no recollection of us purchasing that item, or going to the store. Sometime it’s the next morning. Sometimes a day or two later. The item reappears exactly where I originally placed it. I then explain to my mother that the item has returned and now she is telling me she doesn’t remember me telling her the item disappeared nor does she remember telling me that we didn’t go to the store. This has happened severeal times in my life and with different people involved. I have always blaned it on a multiverse

      • OWilson

        Occam’s Razor!

        You may be a closet poltergeist, or she may be senile. Or both!

        • Don Huntington

          I prefer Claude’s explanation to your rival hypotheses. Either of them might seem more probably but Claude’s “multiverse” is so much more fun. I hope he’s right, not you.

    • Don Huntington

      So interesting! It goes along with my fundamental belief that the universe is stranger than we can possibly imagine. Except that you seem to be imagining some of the strangeness. Thanks for sharing.

  • Erik Bosma

    How about the Believing Rumours Without Bothering to Research Them effect. Ask any religious person especially the ‘fundamentals’.

    • Aaron

      How about the “Be Sure To Only Discuss The ‘Believing Rumors Without Bothering To Research Them’ Effect With Religious People You Know Haven’t Researched Them” Effect.

      Wouldn’t want anyone to point out your straw man. 😉

  • Erik Bosma

    Hey!!! Is believing this tripe about a Mandela Effect not also an instance of the Mandela Effect.

  • Erik Bosma

    Help… I’m stuck in an endless Mandela Effect Loop.

  • joseph2237

    Ever been to a magic show. Everyone knows there is no rabbit in the hat but they don’t have any facts to challenge what there eye sees.Same thing when the assistant is sawed in half. The Mandela effect can only work when there are to facts to challenge what the car sales man is saying.

  • Samuel Blondahl

    That Berenstein bears thing really bugs me.

  • Edward Zitherhands

    Schrödinger didn’t create his famous cat to explain quantum effects but to make fun of them. He was showing how absurd it would be if they were true. He and Einstein were two holdouts for hidden variables.

  • Pace Yrself

    I was reading an article or a comment that said that people may have confused Nelson Mandela with Stephen Biko who was another well-known resister of apartheid and did die in prison in the late seventies. So the above article may explain people’s false memories of that.

    However, I have always been aware of spellings of words since I was a small child. One day around 2008 or 2009 I was in the children’s section of the library looking for a book for my grandchild. I saw a display of Berenstain Bears books and this stopped me in my tracks. This was before I’d seen anything on the ‘net about the controversy or heard of the Mandela Effect.

    I’ve heard of them since I was a child and my own children watched the show on PBS and read their books. I know it was Berenstein Bears and I doubt anything could convince me otherwise. The son of the authors said their name was Berenstain and it came about because when their ancestors came to America the immigration clerk mispelled their name. That’s an interesting story but it doesn’t explain the confusion.

    • Michael Arana

      There is a reality where the Immigration clerk didn’t misspell their name. That’s the reality I came from. And the name was BERNstein, not BerENstein or BerENstAin

    • Clark Onetwo

      The reality where I was from had Frankenstain, Albert Einstain, and had a game show called Win Ben Stain’s Money. Now, I’m stuck in this stupid world where it’s Frankenstein, Einstein, and Stein. I want to go back!

  • Kimberly Valadez

    Please help explain how I was sent photos of actual Berenstein Bears books, and a man standing outside a JC Penny store (not JC Penney….feel free to email me, more than glad to send the photos.

    • Clark Onetwo

      I have photos of UFOs, ghosts, the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, and Santa Claus

  • Poweredbyrogue

    Okay see this is what’s tripping me out. I never really paid mind to the whole “Mandela Effect” Till one day my sister randomly came to me and she was like hey how do you spell That show with the bear family in a tree. I was like oh you mean the “Berenstain Bears”? She said ya only you remember it like that. I was confused she showed me everything’s on the internet from videos to old books saying it was ” Berenstien Bears”. So I was like oh well damn that’s weird but if that’s what it’s saying then okay. So fast forward to now my sister comes to me and she’s like they CHANGED IT. I was like they changed what? She tells me remember the whole Bersti(e)n bears thing? I said oh ya. So she shows me and to my disbelief it was all written I’m “A” and it was never “E” when I fully debated with my on self so that for a fact I knew changed right before my eyes so fucked up

  • Magnettic3 Three

    Just remember the movie “V for Vendetta” or watch it. It will explain that we are being manipulated and polarized by Google (Zuckerberg is Illuminati member), and Great Powers of the world and their companies/owners for their agenda (money, control of society, etc.). There is no mandela effect, false memories, no nothing. Its a bunch of nonsense – names were changed, all effects on movies and audio, yt, etc. all changed by graphic/audio/video tech’s to control society and create doubt, and polarization of society – make people easy to control. How do we know what we are told by Google or TV or news is actually real? If you spill the beans your shut down, killed or fired for many- Newscasters, Holywood actors, Leaders etc. All innocence and sacredness is being destroyed. The example of Berenstein Bears is good – taught us to have morals. When you change it to STAIN – what does it mean? It stains our childhood memories and innocence.

  • MJ_Lewis

    Professionals intentionally use different word or visual associations to remember things. The rest of us do it naturally to various degrees. 100% sure Fabeze “was” spelled Fabreeze! The commercials were so ANNOYING, that product is forever etched in my brain. Also, 100% Depend “was” spelled Depends! You can still find plenty of jokes on the internet with the punch line “Depends” The jokes would have never proliferated as “Depend” or “It Depend”; doesn’t work. Also, Berenstein, not Berenstain. As a child, the “stein” made me think Jewish, which “stain” would have never invoked. How could that be a false memory?
    The BIGGER QUESTION and implication is if someone is toying NOW with spelling and movies in the past to change the future, what is next, Economies, Religions, Nations,…? Based on the history of mankind (violence, war, slavery) and the fact that there is no tech invented for good that man has not used for evil; if in fact, someone has discovered time travel or wormholes to other parallel dimension (secular perspective), the temptation to play G-d with this immense power, even with the best intentions, will ultimately lead to the destruction of the human race or at a minimum a complete upheaval of all that we know to include personal histories. Science with a humanist view thinks, “if we use the scientific method and take reasonable precautions, whats the worst that can happen”? Mans violent history has progressed as mostly a gradual process with occasional cataclysms and disintegration of cultures and order. Tech has made it a smaller and more dangerous world with civilization walking a tightrope between 7th Century, 20th Century and Globalist/Futurist world views. At best, new tech of this nature, will be like Madam Curie, killed by the discovery of an invisible property she did not fully understand. Many theories point to CERN. Mandela Effect first appears around 2005. This is before CERN began their full scale experiments of which many critics suggested the tech could destroy the universe. Prior to bringing that system on line, there would have to have been a proof of concept for the tech before it was built, which could easily be presumed to be prior to 2005 and could have caused the first ripple in time. If you have a Christian or spiritual world view, the descriptions allude to an opening between the physical (matter) and spiritual (anti-matter) realms. In this case, humanity is at the mercy of whatever intent is on the other side of the hole. Outside the pursuit of holiness and righteousness, which leads to G-d, all other manifestations of the spiritual, even when “appearing” as angelic or light, have been deception and evil in nature. CERN is on the same path as Curie, but with more immediate and far greater ramifications than the nuclear bomb.


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