In recent years, a psychological phenomena has gained public attention. Through the internet, people from around the world have been sharing their memories that ended up being false. They have learned there are many more people who also remember the same event or occurrence that, in fact, never happened or happened in a different way. These collective false memories were dubbed “the Mandela Effect” by Fiona Broome in 2010. It gets its name from Nelson Mandela, who many people vividly remember dying in prison in the 1990s. Most of them even remember watching his funeral on television and can agree that President George Bush gave a speech there. At the time of people realizing this, Nelson Mandela was alive and well, and then he later died in 2013.
The topic of the Mandela Effect became popular on social media interfaces like YouTube, boggling millions of viewers. Many videos surfaced bringing new smaller examples to light. These included many misconceptions about the spellings of popular brands or false memories about how widely recognized logos or other popular icons look. People were baffled to find out that the popular fast food chain Chick-fil-A was not spelt “Chic” with just a “c” or “Chik” with just a “k” even though thousands of people insist it is spelt one of those two ways. Another one of these small examples is the fact that Uncle Pennybags, the icon for the classic board game Monopoly, does not have, and never has had, a monocle. Many people, when confronted with an example of the Mandela Effect, swear they are correct and are shocked when they learn they have been wrong their whole lives.
False memories shared by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people is a mystery to scientists and skeptics. Some theorists, including Fiona Broome who named the Mandela Effect, believe the cause of the phenomena is a parallel universe, one in which, for example, Uncle Pennybags does have a monocle. She says every time people experience an example of the Mandela Effect, they remember the things they do because there has been a glitch in this matrix. This is a popular theory that stems from what is known about quantum mechanics. Often times, when explaining this theory, the Schrodinger’s Cat hypothetical is mentioned because it illustrates how quantum particles can be in a superposition of states at the same time. This idea, on a much larger scale, is the basis of the belief that there are parallel universes to our own.
While the idea of a multiverse has amassed a decent following, there are more people who believe there is a psychological explanation for the Mandela Effect, one that has nothing to do with quantum mechanics or alternate realities. To understand this phenomena on a grounded level, one must understand the brain and the formation of memories. The Mandela Effect also has people wondering how hundreds of people can be wrong and yet believe the exact same lie and if neuroscience can reveal an alternative explanation for what is really going on, without dabbling in quantum physics.
There are a few ways in which this phenomena can be explained. First, it is crucial to know that memories are composed of a set of neurons in the brain that store it. In the brain, the physical location of this network of neurons is known as the engram. In the making of a memory, the engram is moved from its temporary dwelling, the hippocampus, to the permanent one: the prefrontal cortex.
Prior learning makes a configuration for similar recollections to be kept in close proximity to one another. This configuration is called a schema. One piece of evidence for this is derived from a 2016 study on long-term memory of concepts that are barren of personal datum. Researchers utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to prove that words that sound similar are physically kept beside each other in the brain. They were also able to make a ‘semantic map’ of words in the cortex.
It may seem like each memory becomes stronger every time someone recalls it, but the opposite is true. Consider an engram a piece of machinery. When someone recalls a story and tells it to his friends, he is dismantling the engram in order to access the information. Every time he does this, he must put it back together and, as a result, the memory can lose fidelity. Summoning a memory reactivates the neurons that make up the engram which causes them to fabricate new connections. The reworked circuits become stable again, and now the memory is “reconsolidated.”
An example of reconciliation producing a false memory is what some people believe about Alexander Hamilton. Most American children a taught at some point in their education that Hamilton was a founding father but never a president. Yet, a study on false memories examined whom most American citizens identify as presidents, many were more likely to say Hamilton was a president than actual former presidents. This is probably due to neurons harboring information about Alexander Hamilton were commonly activated at the same moment as neurons harboring information about former presidents. In the world of neuroscience, it is often said, “neurons that fire together wire together” and this is applicable to the connection between Hamilton and presidents.
Understanding the Hamilton example can help solve another popular and mind blowing one. There is a large group of people who remember a movie called Shazaam being released in the 1990s starring comedian Sinbad as a genie. This movie never existed even though there are hundreds of people who claim to remember it. However, there was a children’s movie called Kazaam (1996) that starred Shaquille O’Neal as a genie.
There is a long list of reasons why so many people experience this false memory. Foremost, the likelihood of having a false memory increases when there is a large number of general associations. In the 1990s, it was common for two movies with agnate plots to be released close together chronologically. Earlier in 1996, before Kazaam came out, Sinbad was in a movie called First Kid. Similar to Kazaam, the film was about a hero helping a wayward boy get on the right path. On top of that, Sinbad is an Arabic name and Sinbad the Sailor is usually linked with the idea of encountering genies. Sinbad is also bald and has a goatee which likens him to a stereotypical genie that one might see in the media. To top it all off, he also dressed up like a genie for a movie marathon in the 1990s of which he was the host. All of these things together contribute to the ‘memory’ that Sinbad played a genie. This is another example of how a large number of small observances can be united to form a confabulation, and therefore, a false memory.
It can also be concluded that smaller examples like Uncle Pennybags not having a monocle are caused by confabulation. Uncle Pennybags does wear a top hat and occasionally carries a cane, two characteristics also shared by Planters mascot Mr. Peanut. Mr. Peanut, however, does always wear a monocle. The similarities in these two icons can cause the meshing of their characteristics when the brain recalls what they look like, therefore giving some people the “memory” that Uncle Pennybags has a monocle.
Both the Hamilton and Shazaam instances offer an explanation as to why groups of people recall the same false memory and not just an individual. Because one word triggers the association with another, each time a memory is recalled, what is true can be mixed with what is untrue, thus fabricating a false memory. This can and does happen to everyone so it is understandable that many people would have the same false memory.