Nelson Mandela, who served as president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, died at home in Johannesburg in December 2013, at age 95. That’s not in dispute. Yet, people around the world vividly recalled news reports of anti-Apartheid leader dying while a political prisoner in the 1980s. How could so many different people share the same false memory? It became known, appropriately enough, as the Mandela Effect.
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Why did so many people believe Nelson Mandela died in prison decades ago? Because they remembered it happening.
How Did the Mandela Effect Get Its Name?
The term “Mandela Effect” was coined by paranormal researcher Fiona Broome, who in 2009 related clear memories of learning Nelson Mandela had died in prison in the 1980s. She even recalled having watched and read news reports about his death. This wasn’t some vague memory, or an instance of, “Wait, did that happen?” As far as Broome was concerned — at least until she learned otherwise — Mandela had died.
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That alone would be completely understandable. Human memory is surprisingly fallible, and eye-witness testimony is notoriously unreliable. As Scientific American reported, each of us experiences what fairly can be called memory illusions. They’re inaccurate memories of real events, co-opted recollections of events we didn’t directly experience, or even wholly invented memories.
What was striking about the false memory of Mandela’s death was that Broome wasn’t the only person who had it. Scores of other people also “remembered” Mandela dying while imprisoned in the 1980s. How is it possible that many unconnected people shared the same “memories” of an event that didn’t happen? Is it evidence of a multiverse? Did Mandela indeed perish in prison in the 1980s in one reality, while the rest of us continued on in a different branch of time?
Probably not. So what’s the deal?
Why the Mandela Effect Proves the Power of Coincidence
As far as we know, there is no parallel universe — at any rate, not one that’s a separate branch of our own reality. If you look up “multiverse,” you’ll always see “theoretical” in the definition. For instance, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary entry reads: “a theoretical reality that includes a possibly infinite number of parallel universes.”
Now, instead look up “coincidence,” and you’ll see as one of its primary definitions this entry: “the occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection.”
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Think about experiences of coincidence you have had that seemed almost unreal. They might have been so amazing that there seemed to have been something out of the ordinary happening. Maybe you thought of an old friend for the first time in years only to have them text you moments later. Perhaps you listened to a song on the radio, and then heard someone humming it an hour later at the office.
Those events might seem incredible, but think of it like this: If you hadn’t been thinking about that old friend, their text merely would have been a pleasant surprise. Had you not heard the song on the radio, you likely wouldn’t have even noticed what your coworker was humming. (Also, maybe you and your friend saw the same social-media post, prompting your thought and their text. And maybe your coworker also heard the song on the radio on the way to the office.)
The fact is that many people having false memories is not special when those memories are kept separate, and when the false memories are of as momentous a man as Nelson Mandela, they’re not even that surprising. The sharing of similar inaccurate memories makes them seem almost cosmic in nature, but really, it’s just a coincidence.
We all have our own false, or inaccurate, memories. Dramatic examples include recalling exactly where we were, and what we were doing, during major events, such as the 9/11 attacks or the news of the death of a beloved celebrity.
The more often a memory recall occurs, the less accurate the memories become, ironically. In reliving and sharing them, we muddle the details and add new elements. In these cases, we know exactly where the eventual inaccuracies come from: our own minds. The false, or altered, memory starts n the brain’s memory center, the hippocampus, and is knocked around in this region of the temporal lobe ever after.
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When it comes to events that are collectively misremembered, such as the 1980s death of Mandela, it’s difficult to pinpoint where exactly the false impressions started. However, we do know of myriad examples where there is a collective false memory.
Picture Monopoly Man, aka Rich Uncle Pennybags, the mascot of the board game Monopoly. Specifically, picture his face. Beneath the signature top hat, he sports a broad, white mustache, a button nose, and a monocle, right? Wrong. Monopoly Man has no eyewear of any kind, and he never has.
Next, what’s the name of classic series of animated shorts featuring such characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig? Looney Toons, right? Look it up, and you’ll see the second word is spelled “Tunes.” However, most people believe the double-O spelling is correct.
Now, picture the late Ed McMahon delivering an oversized check from Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes to an ecstatic American family. You can probably picture that, but you’ll never find a picture of it. That’s because McMahon never represented Publishers Clearing House, and never went around, doling out novelty checks. (He did, however, serve as a spokesman for rival American Family Publishers.) Still, a lot of people seem to remember McMahon as a member of the PCH Prize Patrol. Somewhere, the false memory started, and somehow it — and many others — spread.
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