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The Mandela Effect: bad memories, or altered reality?

Pop Culture

The Mandela Effect: bad memories, or altered reality?

This one’s simple.

The Mandela Effect is one of the most intriguing conspiracy theories to emerge recently. It was first introduced in 2009 by self-described “paranormal consultant” Fiona Broome, who recalled the death of  anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela while he was in prison in the 1980s. Broome noticed that others remembered the event, too.

Imagine Broome’s surprise to learn that Mandela was still alive at the time (he passed away in 2013).

Some of the most popular examples of the Mandela Effect are The Berenstain Bears, the beloved series of children’s books (which everyone swears were called The Bernstein Bears), C-3PO’s silver leg in the original Star Wars trilogy (he had one, go look), and Darth Vader’s revelation to Luke Skywalker about his lineage (most people recall Vader saying, “Luke, I am your father,” when in fact he says, “No, I am your father”).

Mandela Effect C-3PO leg

Told ya!

And of course everyone knows about the movie that never existed. Some swear to clearly recall a film called Shazaam, starring the comedian Sinbad as a genie. In reality, it was Shaquille O’Neal who played a genie in the movie called Kazaam.

In reality, I mean real reality, the Mandela Effect is actually a phenomenon known as mass confabulation — essentially a mass misremembering of certain events. We can easily cause ourselves to create memories of things that never happened. Think back to that time when you were 8 years old, and your uncle got drunk and passed out at Thanksgiving dinner.

It never happened, but if you think about it enough — and especially if there are others “remembering” it, too — you’ve just created your own false memory. Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus pioneered false memory research with her studies that suggested to subjects they’d been separated from their parents at a shopping mall as a kid. About a quarter of the people wound up actually remembering it.

Despite this relatively simple explanation, excited conspiracy theorists have scoured the internet for proof that the things we misremember really did happen, and the Mandela Effect shows that our timeline has somehow been altered. Some adherents claim that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN has created a black hole or some kind of parallel universe.

“When I was looking at conspiracy theories on CERN, every single one of them had some piece of popular culture folded into it,” says Jake Rockatansky, one of the hosts of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, who recently did some research into CERN and the Mandela Effect. “Whether it was from The Simpsons, [or] whether it was from Stargate,” he says.

The Simpsons is victim to an almost reverse Mandela Effect, as the long-running show has supposedly predicted everything from 9/11 to the Trump presidency. CERN gets wrapped up in this, too, as scientists have noticed in retrospect that Homer came surprisingly close to predicting the mass of the Higgs boson, 14 years before physicists confirmed it.

“What is the Mandela Effect other than analyzing pop culture?” says Rockatansky. The Simpsons gets drawn into so many of these conspiracy theories because it’s “an archive of pop culture,” he says.

The Mandela Effect: bad memories, or altered reality?

The doughnut’s unrelated.

Perhaps for some it’s easier to imagine the world ended in 2012 and that now we’re living in a fabricated or simulated reality, than it is to admit they misremembered something. The reality of mass confabulation is far duller than the intrigue and excitement of black holes and alternate timelines. The Mandela Effect is wacky and wild, but it’s not a conspiracy.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture. 

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.


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