From misquoting famous movie lines to recalling entire events that never occurred, the human memory is far from perfect. The Mandela effect is one popular but heavily debated type of false memory.

This article will explore the Mandela effect, including its potential causes and a few famous examples. It will also outline how to recognize false memories.

A statue of Nelson Mandela against the blue sky used to illustrate the Mandela effect.Share on Pinterest
False memories, including the alleged death of Nelson Mandela in the 1980s, are known collectively as the Mandela effect.

The Mandela effect describes a situation in which a person or a group of people have a false memory of an event.

Fiona Broome coined the term over a decade ago when she created a website detailing her recollections of former South African President Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s.

Nelson Mandela did not die in prison in the 1980s. After serving 27 years in prison, Mandela served as president of South Africa between 1994 and 1999 and passed away in 2013.

Despite these facts, Broome seemed to remember international news coverage of Mandela’s death from the 1980s. She even found others who had almost identical memories of Mandela’s death in the twentieth century.

There are several potential causes of the Mandela effect. The sections below will look at these in more detail.

False memories

The concept of false memories provides one potential explanation for the Mandela effect.

False memories are untrue or distorted recollections of an event. Some false memories contain elements of fact, closely resembling the actual event in question. However, others are entirely false.

Although the idea of false memories causes discomfort for some people, memory mistakes are quite common. Memory does not work like a camera, objectively cataloging images, events, and statements in their purest forms. Emotions and personal bias can both influence memories.

Researchers have even discovered a simple method of inducing false memories, called the Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) task paradigm. During the DRM task paradigm, participants read a list of semantically related words, such as:

  • zebra
  • monkey
  • whale
  • snake
  • elephant

After reading the list, researchers will ask the participants whether or not they recall a “lure word,” which is another related word not included on the list. A lure word in the above example might be “lion.” Although the term is semantically related to the other words in the list, it is not present.

Usually, the participants will recognize the lure word and recall reading it, even though it was never on the list.

According to the authors of one 2017 study, people remember false memories induced via the DRM task paradigm for as long as 60 days.

Confabulation

Confabulation is another potential mechanism underlying false memories and the Mandela effect.

Confabulations are false statements or retellings of events that lack relevant evidence or factual support. Although confabulations are technically false statements, the speaker will regard these statements as fact.

According to Lisa Bortolotti, a philosophy professor from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, people do not intentionally confabulate.

In a 2017 article on confabulation, Prof. Bortolotti stated that most people “are unaware of the information that would make their explanations accurate” and are not able to provide better explanations.

Confabulation is a common symptom of neurological conditions that affect memory, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. When a person with dementia confabulates, they are not lying or attempting to deceive. They simply do not have the necessary information or awareness to recall a specific memory or event accurately.

Priming

In psychology, priming describes a phenomenon in which exposure to a stimulus directly influences a person’s response to a subsequent stimulus. For example, if a person reads or hears the word “grass,” they will recognize another related word, such as “tree” or “lawnmower,” more quickly than an unrelated word.

Priming is also known as suggestibility. It can influence a person’s reactions and memory. For instance, the phrase, “Did you grab the red ball from the shelf?” is much more suggestive than the phrase, “Did you take anything from the shelf?”

This is because the second phrase contains a general, open-ended question, while the first describes the action of grabbing a specific object: “the” red ball. Therefore, the first phrase has a stronger influence on memory than the second phrase.

Alternate realities or parallel universes

Broome describes the Mandela effect as a clear memory of an event that never occurred in this reality. Her explanation ties into several popular theories that suggest that the Mandela effect occurs when our reality interacts with other alternate realities or parallel universes.

The concept of alternate realities originates from quantum physics and string theory. This theoretical framework explains the universe and the very nature of reality in terms of tiny strings that vibrate in 10 dimensions.

Based on string theory, one can assert that our universe is only one of many, potentially infinite, other universes. This is known as the multiverse. Although the mathematical foundation of string theory works, the theory itself remains unproven and highly controversial.

Features of the Mandela effect can include:

  • having distorted memories in which some aspects are partially or entirely inaccurate
  • clearly remembering entire events that did not happen
  • several unrelated people sharing similar distorted or inaccurate memories

The Mandela effect occurs when a person believes that their distorted memories are, in fact, accurate recollections. They can clearly remember events that happened differently or events that never occurred at all.

The bottom line is that the Mandela effect does not involve lying or deception. Instead, it occurs when a person or a group of people have clear but false memories.

This section includes a few famous examples of the Mandela effect.

‘Luke, I am your father’

Many people misquote James Earl Jones’s famous line from the 1980 film Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back.

Instead of “Luke, I am your father,” Darth Vader actually says, “No, I am your father.”

‘Life is like a box of chocolates’

Another common misquotation comes from the classic 1994 film Forrest Gump, in which the title character shares a quote he picked up from his mother.

In the scene, Forrest Gump — played by Tom Hanks — actually says, “My mother always said life was like a box of chocolates.”

‘Play it again, Sam’

In Casablanca, another Hollywood classic, people remember Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick saying, “Play it again, Sam.” Some people say that they can even “hear” his voice saying those words.

However, it is Ingrid Bergman’s character Elsa who says, “Play it, Sam.”

There is no easy method for identifying false memories. It can help to share questionable memories with people who may also have witnessed the event or who can verify details of the event.

People who want to validate their memories of famous events, such as the death of a prominent figure, can check news archives.

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon in which a person or a group of people have false or distorted memories.

Some believe that the Mandela effect is proof of alternate realities, while others blame it on the fallibility of human memory.