Was It So or Is It So?

My dad was going to go on a trip in the first week of September. My mother, sister, and I were so sure he said the trip was from the 2nd to the 7th of September. But it turned out he said it was from the 1st to the 5th of September. It was odd; all three of us distinctly remember the former dates while the tickets confirmed that the dates were the latter ones. This is just a small example of how the Mandela Effect comes to play in our daily lives. 

The Mandela Effect is a unique case of shared false memories discovered by paranormal blogger and consultant Fiona Bloomer literally in the context of Nelson Mandela's death. She coined the term in 2010 when she discovered at Dragon Con (a science fiction and gaming conference) that a significant number of people shared her false memory of Mandela's death. In fact, Mandela, still living at that point, was released from prison in 1990 and lived to be 95. He died in 2013. This conspiracy theory is when a large group of people remember something being a certain way, but when people look back at it, something about that particular thing has changed or as the most fictional explanation for this Effect states, it is gone in this universe. Apart from a few, all others say that such a thing never existed, just like Pikachu’s tail tip was never black. But for some select few people it always was. Just like how it has always been looney tunes not loony toons.

Although empirical studies on this effect are rare to come across in scientific literature as of today, there are many day-to-day examples that will make you sit up and take notice of its existence. Is it the Flintsones or the Flinstones? The Kit-Kat has a ‘-’ or not, whether it was Sketchers or Skechers, and a whole list of examples that come to people’s minds where they always thought something was a particular way, till reality turned out to be something else. From movie lines, to appearance of popular cartoon and game characters, from products to facts about people’s lives, the Mandela Effect operates in ways that continues to surprise people.

Speculations about what happens in this effect and why it happens are at the two ends of a spectrum, if it can be called a spectrum: there’s one explanation in terms of the existence of an alternate universe. 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. Interesting as it might sound, this explanation seems a little unpalatable.

There are several concepts that can illuminate why something so strange could be a shared experience. There are no direct studies to prove this but there are many inferences that are drawn based on neuroscientific evidence. One of the evidences from neuroscience states that this effect can be taking place because of the way similar events are encoded in the human mind, shared traces that get activated when one tries to recall information, especially if they happened close to each other in time or are related in some way. This causes the neurons to become labile and able to form new connections, which then become stabile again in a process called ‘reconsolidation.Reconsolidation can reinforce repeated learning over time by strengthening connections and allowing the formation of new associations. However, reconsolidation can also render a memory trace vulnerable to losing its fidelity. Maybe that is why something that is false is believed to be true by many people at a time.

Besides similar associations laying the groundwork for forming a false memory, the other main factors in this instance are “confabulation” and “suggestibility.” Confabulation or the brain’s attempt to fill in missing memory gaps by adding fabricated facts and experiences can be a plausible explanation for this effect. Unlike lying, Confabulation is not intended to deceive and the person confabulating fully believes that the ‘remembered’ details are real.  A third phenomenon that could explain the viral popularity of 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. The Mandela Effect therefore is sometimes even considered as a False Memory phenomenon operating at the group level.

Whether or not a parallel universe exists, the Mandela Effect sure does. Research on it will lead to interesting insights on the way human memory works and why the Mandela Effect takes place.

Priya Baid