Would it surprise you to learn that “Febreze” isn’t spelled “Febreeze”? Maybe not, but the one that normally gets people is Berenstain Bears vs Berenstein Bears. People tend to remember the second one, but in fact “Berenstain” is the correct spelling. Maybe you can think of some other odd memories you’d held onto for years–ones that turned out to be false. There are a handful of common memories people seem to have; memories of things that appear to have never happened. This phenomenon is colloquially referred to as the Mandela Effect; but what exactly is the Mandela Effect?
Mandela Effect: Origins
The Mandela Effect, generally speaking, is a discussion of false memory. The study of false memory, you can probably guess, actually predates the name “Mandela Effect”. But while study of false memories has been around for pretty much as long as memory has existed, calling the phenomenon the “Mandela Effect” wasn’t popularized until 2010.
In 2009, paranormal reporter Fiona Broome reported vividly remembering Nelson Mandela being dead while he was still alive. Reports from many others misremembering Nelson Mandela’s death would surface around 2010, popularizing the term “Mandela Effect,” coined by Broome.
Justifying the Two Examples We Used
While not all instances of the Mandela Effect can be easily justified, we did throw some easily justifiable ones at you to front this post. Both Febreze and Berenstain Bears are phonetically pronounced “Febreeze” and “Berenstein,” so it’s natural for people to remember the phonetic spelling. A couple other instances of the Mandela Effect that occur in a similar vein can likely be justified in this way.
We’re not here to tell you to throw out the Mandela Effect though. There’s definitely some stuff to take away from it; especially when it comes down to how malleable our memories really are.
Couple examples; when shown a video of two cars colliding, participants were asked to guess how fast the cars were going when they hit each other. There was one catch. The researchers would change their verbiage when asking about the collision. They would say “crash,” “smash,” “hit,” and all sorts of other synonyms. Despite the footage shown to participants being exactly the same, participants would predict differing speeds depending on the verbiage used.
Another experiment had participants shown an office space, later they were asked to recall items in that space. They named items that seemed like they would fit in an office setting (like some generic office supplies), despite some of those items not being present in the room.
We could go further down the rabbit hole, but suffice to say that it’s really easy to adamantly misremember something. It’s part of the reason eyewitness testimony doesn’t go as far anymore.
Why the Mandela Effect?
Alternate Universes and Timelines
According to Broome and a sizable population, the Mandela Effect can be explained by parallel universes. Where a large number of people remember Febreze being spelled “Febreeze,” this theory posits that there is a universe or timeline where the product actually is “Febreeze”. The people who remember it this way moved from that timeline into this one; where it is “Febreze”.
This probably doesn’t explain being able to plant memories like the two experiments we mentioned earlier. But it does offer an explanation for how very large groups of people might be able to misremember things identically. While we might be quick to write off a theory made by a paranormal reporter a pseudoscience, this is certainly one of those things you can’t really prove, but you can’t really disprove it either. Regardless of what Marvel has taught us, technology isn’t really at the point where we can move between alternate universes.
Speaking of the universe–did you know scientists have determined its color? Check out What Color is the Universe? for more info.
The Power of Suggestion
While there are multiple names for this, it’s probably not surprising to learn how (relatively) easy it is to implant memories. We even talked about examples of that before, with the office space and car collision experiments.
There’s also the power of presupposition. It’s basically how powerful selective language use can be. The best example is asking a closed-ended question. If you were asked “what color was your first car” versus “what shade of red was your first car,” you might answer differently depending on how well you remember your car. Whether you think it’s scary or not–you probably won’t realize (in real time) if you’ve misremembered your car’s hue.
In a study involving students at the University of Washington, a theory regarding how memories can be changed was posited. It’s referred to as Skeleton Theory, and divides memory creation into two “phases.” Your memories are split between acquisition and recall.
Memories are acquired based on stimulus. For example, you associate the memory of your car by its color (visual stimulus). Of course you’re focusing on other stimuli, but we’ll stick with just one.
Whenever you actively try to remember your car, you’re recalling it based on the stimulus you experienced when you first acquired that memory.
As such, whenever you recall a memory, there’s a chance for it to be distorted–and when you try recalling the memory again, it gets distorted further. Kind of like photocopying the same sheet of paper over and over again. The quality of the memory will likely diminish over time.
Interested in more memory shenanigans? Try out this Progressive Memory Challenge.