The Mandela Effect is mostly nonsense but a little cool

I’ve been on a mystery YouTube kick lately, and a topic that keeps coming up is the Mandela Effect. It’s a much-discussed phenomenon, first described by paranormal researcher Fiona Broome, in which multiple people misremember something in a similar way. Social media gave the term the setting it needed to explode in popularity.

I like the concept as a way of discussing a common-yet-weird occurrence, but I take issue with a certain tinfoil-hat corollary associated with it. Some conspiracy theorists argue it is proof that parallel universes have crashed into one another. Those false memories come from the other universe, obviously. As conspiracy theories go, at least it’s tame and harmless. But it’s also ridiculous.

Imagine misquoting a movie and instead of thinking, “oh, I remembered that line wrong”, your reaction is, “obviously what happened here is that the universe I live in collided with yours and, while that line is like that in your timeline …”

Look, I thought it was “Berenstein” Bears too. The name of the popular children’s book series is, in fact, Berenstain Bears. It’s just far more common for names to end in “-stein”. When we discuss these books 15 years after last having read one, we’re likely to make the same mistake.

But the Mandela Effect does several things well. It rebrands boring stuff into something cool, and it promotes discussion among people who otherwise may never have met. I rarely see people talking about those things, so it’s time we do them justice.

The Mandela Effect rebrands boring science to generate discussion

The Mandela Effect is essentially a replacement for terms already known to science. It’s a sexy rebranding of boring jargon.

An article on that looks into how false memories occur through the lens of the Mandela Effect mentions a couple of those unsexy terms. The first is confabulation, a process Healthline likens to “honest lying” in which a person inadvertently creates a false memory while “attempting to fill in gaps in their own memory”. The other is as self-explanatory as it is boring: false memories. Your recollection of that event or movie just isn’t accurate.

What a snooze fest. No wonder even major media outlets are inclined to lean into this theory, and occasionally the conspiracy side of it.

To me, this rebranding is one of the most interesting things about this concept. It’s marketing in practice. “Confabulation” does not connect with an audience. “Collective false memories” is far too technical to win over a crowd. “The Mandela Effect” though, that captures attention and drives engagement.

Journalists should know better

Let me cycle back to the coverage of the Mandela Effect. It shocks me how often the conspiracy interpretation is repeated in the news. If there is any group of people who should know what’s going on here, it should be journalists.

I haven’t done any interviews for this blog, but my past work often involved them. Any time I did one for a print publication, I transcribed it.

These were conversations in which I was an active participant, and that I had finished minutes prior. Still, every damn time there would be moments where I would attempt to type a phrase I was certain my guest had said, only to find they had used different wording.

I’m no psychologist, but I feel like I can safely say that this is just how brains work. They aren’t video cameras or photocopiers that reproduce things exactly as they were recorded. As Harvard University’s Bok Center puts it in an article about how memory works, memory retrieval “is subject to error.”

When making my transcription mistakes, I generally remembered the concepts and ideas, but misremembered phrasing. I think I was trying to write things down how I would have said them.

Movies are a common culprit

If I can’t remember the exact wording of a conversation I just had, there is no way I expect myself to remember dialogue from a movie I haven’t seen in years. Yet many examples of the Mandela Effect centre on exactly that.

I couldn’t imagine trying to learn the lines to a play just by watching someone perform it multiple times. If you asked me years later to recite a line, even the most iconic from the play’s climax, there’s a good chance I would get it wrong.

That example assumes I am actively trying to memorize the lines. Most viewers are not doing that when they settle in to watch Sonic the Hedgehog for the fifth time. Though, they may partly memorize key scenes on accident. Partly is the key word.

When thinking back on Star Wars, the line “Luke, I am your father” sounds right because we know Darth Vader was addressing Luke. The line was really “no, I am your father”, but out of context, that “no” doesn’t mean much. Misremembering a “Luke” instead of a “no” makes sense as it adds the context of the child to whom Darth Vader is the father.

When researching this article, I read a lot of slap-dash content that rounded up 40 examples of the Mandela effect (it’s often 40 for some reason). I also read through a subreddit dedicated to the topic. Most examples can be explained away in a similarly simple way.

Why the Mandela Effect persists

Few people are going to do that though. It’s extremely boring to say things like, “oh, I remembered that line wrong”. Especially when you can easily find other people who also remember it differently. Saying, “bro, I remember it too! Something is going on”, will lead to a more exciting conversation.

It’s far more interesting to vaguely hint that some unseen force is responsible. And if you have a cool term to slap on it – the Mandela Effect – that’s even better.

The Mandela Effect is about collective false memories, but it’s also, probably unintentionally, an exercise in community building. It brings people together to bond over strange and specific shared experiences. I’ve had many discussions about it. I suspect I will continue to do so for years to come.

Even among established friends, it’s a great conversation starter. But it’s even better on social media, where you can write about the fact you misremembered and easily find someone else who is in the same boat.

In that way, it represents the best aspects of social media. I wish more people would rebrand boring scientific concepts in a similar way. We could use another way to bond with strangers. It might help us not post bad opinions online, too.

Have you experienced the Mandela Effect? Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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