What Is The Mandela Effect & Why Does It Happen? 15 Theories & Examples
Memory isn't always accurate; sometimes details are spotty, which can make recalling a name or conversation something resembling a brain teaser. Then there are the memories you've computed into truths, but they never really happened.
In some instances, this happens on a larger scale, in which a large group of people clings to a distortion of reality. This phenomenon is called the Mandela effect, and chances are, you've fallen prey to it at some point.
What is the Mandela effect?
According to licensed professional mental health counselor, Joanne Frederick, NCC, LPC-DC, of JFL Counseling, the Mandela effect refers to a situation or event (sometimes as insignificant as the spelling of a name) that many people believe occurred, when, in fact, it did not.
It occurs when a group of people becomes immune to the truth, for no reason other than the fact that they've somehow convinced themselves of an alternative.
"It comes back to having a false memory, [and] mistakenly recalling experiences or events that have not occurred or even distorting existing memories," Frederick tells mbg of the phenomenon. "The unconscious creation of fabricated or misinterpretation of memories is called confabulation. In everyday life, confabulation is relatively standard."
Where the name comes from.
Though the Mandela effect has probably been around for centuries, it wasn't until 2009 that paranormal researcher Fiona Broome put a name to it. She coined the phrase after the late South African president, whom many (Broome included) believed died in prison in the 1980s. In reality, Mandela passed away in 2013 of a respiratory infection.
"The phrase 'Mandela effect' started at Dragon Con, America's second-largest sci-fi and fantasy gathering," Broome explains in a YouTube video on the subject. Broome was in attendance as a celebrity guest speaker, and during one of the conversations she was involved in, the event's security manager said their chat reminded him of the "people who remember Nelson Mandela dying, decades ago. That got my attention because I was someone who had one of those memories, but I'd never mentioned that memory to anyone because it seemed so weird, and I never found an explanation for it."
This sense of eerie camaraderie led Broome to launch her website, MandelaEffect.com, and over 10 years later, "tens of thousands of readers" continue to share their unexplained memories, and the theories they have about them. "It turned out, the Nelson Mandela memory was just the tip of the iceberg," Broome goes on to say in her video. "Anyone can experience [the effect]...all it takes is that one memory, something they're absolutely certain of, that doesn't fit this reality."
How it happens.
As far as how the Mandela effect happens and why it occurs, the jury's out. Researchers and experts have yet to uncover the root cause of these types of memory distortions, but there are a few theories. Some are supported by science; others are not:
1. False memories.
False memories are distorted and/or untrue recollections of an event that may contain some trace elements of fact or that turn out to be entirely fabricated. According to Frederick, the concept of false memories is "one of the several" potential explanations for the Mandela effect.
"Although the idea of false memories makes some people uncomfortable, memory mistakes are pretty standard," Frederick tells mbg. "Your memory does not work like a camera by cataloging images, statements, and events in their purest forms. Your personal bias and emotions can influence your memories."
This false memory phenomenon was explored in a 2017 study performed by psychologists Enmanuelle Pardilla-Delgado, Ph.D., and Jessica D. Payne, Ph.D., at the University of Notre Dame. The researchers introduced false memories via the DRM task paradigm (a protocol that lists semantically related words). Interestingly, they found that the more words listed, the more likely false memories were to occur.
"One particularly important factor to keep in mind for future experiments is that increasing the number of semantically related words in each list boosts the false memory effect, i.e., in order to increase the probability of false recall/recognition, it is paramount that experimenters present as many words as possible (for each list) during encoding," the authors concluded in their paper.
While the study specifically documents the likelihood of false memory development as a result of semantically related words, it parallels the false memories of real events in that, the more detailed someone can recall an event, even if it didn't take place, the more likely someone is to believe it and, as a result, commit it to memory as fact.
Another potential explanation for the Mandela effect is confabulation, which, according to the International Journal of Neurology and Neurotherapy, refers to the "creation of false memories in the absence of intentions of deception." In other words, it's the spreading of false information without the intention of spreading false information. Whoever passes on the false memory genuinely believes they're telling the truth.
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"Confabulation is a common symptom in neurological conditions that affect memory, such as Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia," Frederick tells mbg. "When a person suffering from dementia confabulates, they are not purposefully lying or attempting to deceive anyone. In fact, they do not have the necessary information or awareness to accurately recall a specific memory or event."
3. Parallel universes or alternate realities.
According to Fiona Broome, paranormal explanations, like parallel universes or alternate realities, shouldn't be discounted when exploring the various reasonings why the Mandela effect occurs (though, Broome also stresses that discussions around the Mandela effect should be "light and fun," and approached with "whimsical speculation").
In her video titled "What is the Mandela effect?" Broome repeatedly points out that those experiencing the Mandela effect are experiencing memories that never occurred in "this reality," as if to insinuate that the Mandela effect occurs when reality interacts with another alternate reality or parallel universe. An explanation that, according to Frederick, originates from quantum physics and string theory.
"String theory is essentially a theoretical framework that explains the very nature of reality and the entire universe in terms of tiny strings that vibrate in 10 different dimensions," Frederick explains. And though highly controversial and unproven, based on string theory alone, Frederick says, "one can assert that our universe is only one of many, potentially infinite, other universes known as the multiverse."
The idea of past-life memories also correlates with these paranormal theories, though according to Jim Tucker, M.D., past-life memories are typically recounted by children, and are often forgotten by the age of seven. Still, there are so many questions left unanswered on the subject of consciousness and what lies beyond the physical world, that we cannot confirm nor deny these theories, no matter how out-of-the-box they sound.
"We are not just physical beings trapped in a random universe for a few decades and then we're gone," Tucker previously told mbg. "This is a hopeful message for people."
4. Flawed reporting.
How many times has your favorite celebrity "died" via fake news? Be it intentional or accidental, flawed news reporting can lead people to believe something that isn't true. This has only worsened with social media, on which anyone can have a platform and spread rumors.
For example, back in August of 2020, the hashtag #RIPEminem gained traction on Twitter after one user Tweeted "I have killed Eminem." Fans flocked to the platform to express concern for the rapper's well-being, many believing he'd died. The tweet turned out to be, unsurprisingly, a hoax, and Marshall Mathers is still alive and well to this day.
5. Realistic dreams.
Have you ever woken up from a vivid dream and felt as though the events that took place in your slumber actually happened? Or maybe you're going about your day and are overcome with a sensation that you've dreamed of the experience before? This is called déjà rêvé (not to be confused with déjà vu), in which you dream something happened before it did and only recall the memory when something in real life triggers it.
"For the most part, [moments of déjà rêvé] are within the realm of normal, even common, experiences," therapist and dream expert Leslie Ellis, Ph.D., previously told mbg. "But they also remind us that life, at any moment, can be or feel extraordinary."
Collective false memories.
It's interesting when one person's memories become skewed, but it's even more fascinating when a large group of people shares a misconstrued recollection of an event.
These are called "collective false memories," and they occur because, well, humans tend to take what others say as fact. This is known as "suggestibility," and it can quickly lead to collective false memories.
"When misinformation is introduced, it can compromise the fidelity of an existing memory, which is precisely why an attorney can object to 'leading questions' that suggest a specific answer in a court of law," Frederick tells mbg.
The truth may be entirely different from the collective memory, but if a large enough group of people recall an event or situation a certain way, they'll continue to do so—true or not.
Renowned parenting expert, licensed educational psychologist, and board-certified behavior analyst Reena B. Patel, LEP, BCBA, adds that, sometimes, humans will also fill in the gaps of memory in order to make sense of it. "We try to remember every detail that happened, and when others who may not remember [all the details either] agree with us, it becomes more set in stone," Patel tells mbg.
In these circumstances, collective false memory is caused by the reinforcement and validation by others.
Examples of the Mandela effect:
1. Oscar Mayer
You thought there was another "e" in there, didn't you? The correct spelling is right there in the catchy jingle we all know and love. Still, many people think Oscar Mayer is Oscar Meyer.
2. Sex and the City
And, not in.
3. Freddie Prinze Jr.
Raise your hand if you've also been calling him Freddie Prince Jr. Yeah, to quote The Ting Tings, that's not his name.
4. Froot Loops
Kellogg's tried to be clever with its spelling of fruit, but a lot of us have been not-so-quietly correcting them for years.
5. "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…"
…is a misquote. What the evil queen actually says: "Magic Mirror on the wall."
6. "Luke, I Am Your Father."
If that's how you remember Darth Vader dropping this chilling revelation in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, you're not alone. However, Vader's line was actually "No, I am your father."
7. The Berenstein Bears
… don't exist. Rather, the Berenstain Bears do.
8. Jif or Jiffy?
Let's set the record straight: There is only Jif Peanut Butter. Skippy, but not Jiffy.
9. Flinstones or Flintstones?
There are two Ts in this modern stone-age family's name.
10. Smokey Bear
…would like to put a stop to forest fires and the addition of "the" to his name.
The bottom line.
We may never know exactly how or why the Mandela effect occurs, but we do know it's real, and many of us have or will have experienced it at some point in our lives. But remember, all of these experiences are whimsical, spiritual, and should be approached with lightness and curiosity.
While the Mandela effect is seemingly out of our control, there are other out-of-this-world phenomena you can consciously tap into and create for yourself, such as spiritual awakenings and lucid dreams.