I discovered my memories weren’t all real. It made me love psychology.

Sept. 25, 2022, 10:27 p.m.

My first mind-boggling experience with the Mandela Effect occurred when I was purging my bedroom last summer. I was cleaning out my old bookshelf, ready to donate some books I no longer needed. After a couple of finds, I came across one of my favorite childhood book series, “The Berenstain Bears.” As a teeny toddler, my mom would always read this series with me before tucking me in bed. 

After reminiscing about this moment, I began reading a story for old times sake. However, when I took a quick look at the title after finishing the book, I immediately thought Berenstain was spelled with an “e” instead of an “a.” Assuming I wasn’t tripping, I double-checked and saw that I had misspelled it the entire time. 

A few Google searches later — I found something called “The Mandela Effect.” You would think you’d remember something — a phrase, logo or movie scene — but in reality, you’ve got it all wrong. 

Learning about the Mandela Effect sparked my interest in psychology and how our brains play tricks on us. Moreover, it taught me how complex our cognitive abilities can be and how collective false memories can occur. 

Coined by paranormal researcher Fiona Broome, the Mandela Effect describes the phenomenon of people misremembering past events or media. The term first became popular for its namesake, former South African president, Nelson Mandela, whom Broome misremembered dying in prison during the 1980s. In reality, Mandela left prison in 1990 and passed away in 2013. 

As a well-known theory, the Mandela Effect often refers to pop culture, famous quotes, unforgettable logos and certain events. Another notable example is that many recall the line, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” from the classic Disney movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” — but the line is actually, “Magic mirror, who’s the fairest of them all?” 

The Mandela Effect shares its similarities with the childhood game “Telephone.” In this game, a statement is spoken and gets passed down to the next person and the next until the message gets delivered to the last person in the row. However, in being passed down, it goes through a series of changes due to how people receive things, communication errors and volume. Since different versions of the message get passed around, the message ends up being something completely different than the original. Likewise, you can recall a memory from your brain, but once it undergoes time and experiences, it will be remembered differently.

Neuroscience and psychology play a key aspect in explaining this type of distinction. One of my favorite examples is from the famous cartoon series, “Curious George.” We mistakenly remember Curious George with a tail because most monkeys have tails. However, I was shocked to discover that this animated animal doesn’t have one. This mistake is understandable — my mind thought of this because I had a clear memory of monkeys having tails. Thus, this concept is engraved into a section of my brain, where other memories are stored, and sets of neurons that are in close connection with one another are activated, causing a mix-up between other concepts in our brain. 

The hippocampus is crucial in creating new memories, and although memory is reconstructive, various contributing factors, like experiences and observations, can be influences. In my high school psychology class last semester, my teacher provided us with a list of words (bed, snooze, alarm, etc). From that list, we had to memorize the words and recite them out loud. Eventually, her students, including myself, found ourselves reciting the word “sleep.” Despite it not being on the list, the real giveaway was that those words were all related to sleeping. In cognitive psychology, this process is called the Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) task paradigm and its goal is to study false memories. 

Several books and even a film, “The Mandela Effect,” have focused on this phenomenon, indicating that it is becoming more popular in pop culture, and interest will continue to grow. The Mandela Effect certainly poses a mystery at the moment, but learning about it will draw many deeper into the world of science fiction. With sci-fi movies like “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” hitting the big screens, the concept of the multiverse and multiple realities have been quite appealing for many people. 

Some conspiracy theorists have claimed that the Mandela Effect is due to alternate universes in society, but this explanation lacks scientific support. Likewise, the internet has given several misleading claims, and, oftentimes, some websites can lead to false misconceptions. While the Mandela Effect is a fairly new theory, its popularity on the internet can lead to incorrect information, so it’s best to trust your own instincts. 

I never would’ve thought a random closet purge could’ve led to my discovery of the Mandela Effect, but, regardless, I’m glad it did. This phenomenon has shown me how significant memories can be and the unique way our brain processes them. Although the Mandela Effect meddles with our memories, it has led to my love for psychology.

Laurie Chow is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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