The strange phenomenon known as the Mandela Effect has a thing or two to say about memory, truth and what ‘real’ really means. Dan Michael Jones, The Royals’ resident explorer of the surreal, reports from somewhere down the rabbit hole.

Man reflected in puddle

Nelson Mandela died in 2013 at age 95. It was the end of an iconic life for the freedom fighter and Nobel Peace Prize-winner who lived primarily in the public eye – even when he was locked behind bars. Obituaries mourned the loss of a statesman who made lasting change for the betterment of mankind.

But when he died, a whole bunch of people around the world were really confused. Because they’d already seen Mandela pass away. They’d already seen his televised funeral. They’d already read obituaries after he died during the 90s – never able to take his rightful place as the head of a free South Africa.

English Alive, 1990: writings from High Schools in Southern Africa; K. Heugh, A. Kennet; Western Cape Branch of the South African Council for English Education, 1991.
English Alive, 1990: writings from High Schools in Southern Africa; K. Heugh, A. Kennet; Western Cape Branch of the South African Council for English Education, 1991.

And they were all convinced that they hadn’t just remembered it wrong. They were sure things had happened that way in their reality, and their reality had changed. One of them was US researcher Fiona Broome, who coined the title “The Mandela Effect” for the strange phenomenon she and others were experiencing.

But it’s not just about Nelson Mandela. The phenomenon has permeated politics and popular culture, and gone beyond the “are you kidding me?” factor. It says a lot about the nature of memory and its ability to be blurred, influenced and reshaped.

I Feel A Change Comin’ On

Google turns up hundreds of other examples of Mandela Effects, and a huge number of people who are convinced of their legitimacy.

In 2015, a Vice article titled The Berenst(E)ain Bears Conspiracy Theory That Has Convinced the Internet There Are Parallel Universes got people outside of the web’s dustiest corners thinking about the phenomenon.

You might remember reading the Berenstein Bears books or watching the cartoon when you were a kid. You might have read the books or watched the series with your own kids. Are you 100% convinced Berenstein is spelled s-t-e-i-n like Einstein? Turns out in this universe we’ve been spelling it Brenstain (with an “a”) all along.

Then in 2016, New Statesman published an article about people convinced that there were two films in the 90s about kids befriending genies. Both starred tall dudes with one-word names that start with an “s”. Both have a “z” in the title. Kazaam, staring the NBA star known as Shaq was real. Shazam, starring the comedian known as Sinbad wasn’t.

But New Statesman spoke with Mandela Effect-ed fans of Shazam, including Don, who worked at his uncle’s video store as a teenager in the 90s:

“I had to handle the two copies we owned dozens of times over the years. And I had to watch it multiple times to look for reported damages to the tape, rewind it and check it in, rent it out, and put the boxes out on display for rental. It feels like a part of my childhood has now been stolen from me. How does a movie simply vanish from our history?”

Fiona Broome suggests that these aren’t simple errors in memory. Rather, they’re reconstructed incidents (or sequences of events) from the past.

“They exceed the normal range of forgetfulness,” she says.

And she credits the multiverse for these shifts. As in our universe is just one in an infinite series of universes in which every possible combination of events and outcomes can and will happen. Sometimes they just meet at the edges and bleed into each other a little.

Further Down The Rabbit Hole

Mandela Effect theorists and fanatics (and there are plenty) have taken Broome’s initial hypothesis a whole lot further. They place the blame squarely on CERN – the European Centre for Nuclear Research – and the centre’s famed Large Hadron Collider.

The planet’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator and the largest machine in the world, the Collider is housed in a 27km circular tunnel beneath CERN’s headquarters on the Franco-Swiss border just outside Geneva. And it’s there to try and replicate the conditions of the Big Bang, the event that led to the creation of the universe.

Many who believe in the Mandela Effect say that every time the Large Hadron Collider is used – ie. every time the conditions of the birth of the universe are recreated – it shifts our reality a little.

That shift is not enough so that the fundamental nature of life itself is changed, but enough so that one man’s death occurs differently, or one of the two B-grade 90s flicks about tweens palling about with genies phases out of existence forever.

So that’s the exciting explanation. And it’s a conspiracy theory that supporters attempt to justify with real science about particle physics, gravitational waves, string theory and cosmic inflation. But an accurate explanation might be a less sci-fi and more Freudian than anything Broome et al suggest.

Because truth is, us humans are fallible creatures with imperfect sensory functions that only get worse at their jobs as we age. Our cognitive systems are easily led astray. And our memory centres aren’t high-performance hard drives, they’re biochemical processes that reconstruct past experience into vague representations of “what really happened”.

Losing The Memory Wars

Elizabeth Loftus is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Washington. And she’s an expert in reconstructive memory who has provided expert testimony about the falliabily of recall in a number of high profile court cases – including the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the trial of the LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King and the litigation of Michael Jackson for child sex charges.

In a study Loftus undertook during the 1970s, she asked participants to recall details of a simulated car crash they were shown by asking half “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” and half “How fast were the cars going when they smashed each other?”. And that small change in wording made a big difference in the results.

When the researcher asked the question using the world “smashed,” participants recalled that the cars were travelling at higher speeds compared to when Loftus asked them with the word “hit.” The word “smashed” caused eyewitnesses to recall broken glass at the scene even though none existed. Their memories changed due to the changing of one word in a question.

This work can help explain many examples of the Mandela Effect as simply contaminated or distorted memories. Like the way – spoiler alert – Darth Vader’s line in The Empire Strikes Back has been misquoted over and over as “Luke, I am your father,“ even by the character’s voice actor James Earl Jones (for those playing at home, the actual line is “No, I am your father.”)

But this wasn’t enough for Loftus, who was convinced it is possible to implant entirely false memories in people. She developed the ‘Lost in the Mall’ technique during the 1990s. Participants of a study were each given four short stories describing events from their childhood, supplied by their family members, and later asked to try and recall them.

What participants weren’t told was that one of the stories – describing a time when the subject was lost in a shopping centre – was false. The fake narrative incorporated plausible details provided by the relative. In this initial study, 25% of the participants reported to be able to remember this event even though it never actually happened, and many were able to provide embellishing details that were not supplied to them.

Fake is the New Real

“This is a dangerous time. Moving forward, we need to be more vigilant with what we trust from the internet,” says Barack Obama in a powerful 2018 PSA about the mind-bending potential and inherent risks of AI-driven deepfake videos.

Barack Obama
Still from You Won’t Believe What Obama Says In This Video!, BuzzFeed Video

Only it’s not Obama talking. Sure, it’s his face, but the mouth and the voice are a spot-on impersonation by Get Out director Jordan Peele. In a world that’s divided by “fake news” and “inconvenient truth”, we need to be more vigilant about who and what we choose to trust.

The Mandela Effect shows that not only are our brains and memories fallible, they’re highly susceptible to influence. And as fakes get more and more lifelike thanks to machine learning and AI, the implantation of false memories will only get easier and easier.

Recently, a deepfake video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – a stringent critic of Donald Trump – made its way across the web. The video was an obvious fraud, slowed down and then pitch-corrected to make it look and sound like Pelosi was drunk and incoherent at several news conferences and public events.

But despite being faked, Twitter and Facebook declined to remove it. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani shared the clip, and then the President himself sent out a “PELOSI STAMMERS THROUGH NEWS CONFERENCE” missive which embedded the video and was pinned to the top of his Twitter feed.

Scary stuff. And perhaps scary enough for us for all to rekindle our long-term relationships with the truth once and for all. Otherwise, I’m moving to Geneva. So that next time they fire up the Large Hadron Collider, I get Mandela Effect-ed over into another timeline.

– Dan Michael Jones