One of the most popular phenomenon that has gained increasing prevalence in the Information Age is that of false memories.
A popular conception of this psychological phenomenon can be seen in the so-called “Mandela effect.”
But what are false memories in their most general sense, especially when speaking with regards to large groups of people or even entire societies?
False memories are a notion or even surety that something commonly known by all was at one point different or presented differently than it is now.
What does this mean exactly?
Before we return to the “Mandela effect” and how it is found most prominently in popular culture, we have another prominent example of the false memory phenomenon that shows how something could be different at some point in the past or presented differently.
And that is the Berenstain Bears, a popular line of children’s books in the United States and beyond.
Similar to the Mandela effect, the Berenstain Bears controversy has raged for years because some people claim that it was “Berenstein” at one point or was always “Berenstein.” The actual spelling of the series, Berenstain, is seen as evidence of an intersecting alternative reality.
Whatever the conspiracy, the underlying spirit is the same: A false memory, after taking root among a group of people, is then propagated to others until it seems that the logic of the false memory is true.
What can explain the Berenstain/Berenstein controversy that makes sense in terms of false memories and the official spelling of the series?
A cursory glance at the font used to spell out Berenstain doesn’t do it any favors. It is easy to see how the cursive “A” could be perceived as a cursive “E.” But there’s more to it than that. It would be natural for the brain to “correct” the cursive “A” to an “E” because of the common “-stein” found in surnames. The suffix “-stain” is unheard of in Western society, but “-stein” is quite common.
As psychological tests about letter placement has revealed, the brain will “autocorrect” what it is viewing if it is familiar with the word. In these tests, the placement of the first and final letter matters more than the order of the proceeding letters. This is why phrases like “hpoe tihs mekas snese” are not difficult to decipher for a native speaker of English. The same mechanism within the brain could explain the “-stain” to “-stein” conversion.
So what does all of this have to do with famous South African freedom fighter and former leader Nelson Mandela?
Though he didn’t die until 2013, many people proclaimed his death well before that, some even saying he died in prison thus never giving him the chance to serve as South Africa’s President.
This sentiment comes from a commonly shared sentiment among people that Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s while fighting for South Africa’s freedom. So prevalent is this error that it gave rise to the particular phenomenon for which the phrase is named.
With everything on the Internet, the Mandela effect breeds controversy and conspiracy. Some claim that this is, yet again, evidence of parallel realities. Psychologists, on the other hand, note it as a form of mass hysteria without the hysteria or a kind of meme without the image.
And that makes sense within a society based upon democratic norms and with a participatory capitalist system. This is because you can choose what you believe and sometimes this can extend to whole systems of thought that question “reality.” A sentiment similar to this was expressed by the Wachowski brothers in their Matrix series of films.
Those movies, themselves examples of a Mandela effect writ large, posit a world governed by computer code and in which human bodies are trapped in pods, powering a race of robots, while living in a simulation that approximates the modern era.
Heady concepts to be sure but, again, based in real worries and actual psychological phenomenon.
Another expression of the Mandela effect or false memory hysteria has to do with the 1993 movie Dazed and Confused, a stoner comedy that is a cult classic now.
In one famous scene from that film, a character is shown spinning a globe. Interestingly, there is a large island land mass beside the continent of Australia.
It is hard to see any real detail in the frame, but the “land mass” is definitely there.
Or is it?
While some have speculated that this is evidence of an alternative reality with a lost continent beside Australia, or something along those lines, there are actually more explanations – or complications – to this than meets the eye.
That’s because this same map made an appearance in AMC’s vaunted serial drama about Madison Avenue advertising execs, Mad Men.
In a scene in character Pete Campbell’s office, the same globe with the added island beside Australia can be seen. Is this not proof of the alternative reality once again creeping into our own?
Or is that space a map legend, or an area of the globe used by cartographers to explain the markings found on it.
Since both Pete Campbell’s globe and the Dazed and Confused Globe share this unique placement one could conclude that they are both drawn from the same alternative reality or that the prop department is subject to the same generic mass-produced stuff that the rest of us have to use. In other words, the globes look the same because they are the same because industrial companies tend to make things in massive quantities – all looking the same.
A cursory Google image search reveals that this alternative reality continent is either a widespread phenomenon or that the globe makers did good business at one point in time.
The answer, whatever it may be, might not be as sexy as an alternative reality or a conspiracy to change collective memories.
That said, just because this phenomenon can be explained doesn’t mean that alternative realities don’t exist or that a “multiverse” isn’t possible. But, for a serious discussion of those topics, you will need to turn to the realm of astrological science, not psychology.