Locations:
Search IconSearch

The Mandela Effect: How False Memories Trick Your Brain Into Believing

Our collective misremembering of events comes from a surplus of false memories

Silhouette of person, with brain as four puzzle pieces

We love a good brain buster, especially if it gets us thinking about things in new and exciting ways. But the Mandela Effect is more than just a mind game. It’s a phenomenon in which participants collectively misremember the specific details of a person, place, situation or event as if it were a reality, when in fact it was not.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

According to neuropsychologist Aaron Bonner-Jackson, PhD, the Mandela Effect may happen because of our brains’ ability to create and store false memories. We offer some popular examples of the Mandela Effect that just might blow your mind, along with some possible explanations for the psychology behind the phenomenon.

What is the Mandela Effect?

The Mandela Effect is a social phenomenon in which a group of people incorrectly remember very specific details about a person, place, situation or event as if it were a reality. The term was popularly coined by paranormal researcher Fiona Broome, who shared in 2009 that she had a clear memory of former South African president Nelson Mandela dying while in prison in the 1980s. But what she remembered wasn’t true.

Mandela didn’t die in prison. Instead, he served a 27-year prison sentence and was released in 1990. He went on to serve as the first president of South Africa, from 1994 to 1999 and then died in 2013.

On its own, this instance of misremembering could be summed up as minor confusion or a misrepresentation of the facts. But surprisingly, Broome discovered she wasn’t alone in her vivid recollection of Mandela’s death in the ‘80s. Many others online also remembered Mandela’s death incorrectly and believed he died many years before his actual death.

It’s this collective misremembering that amplifies and characterizes the Mandela Effect.

Examples of the Mandela Effect

Examples of the Mandela Effect most often occur in reference to pop culture and historically significant events that have a wider audience and higher chance of interactivity. Some of the most popular examples of the Mandela Effect include:

Looney Tunes vs. Looney Toons

This animated series, produced by Warner Bros. and starring iconic characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd, was never named Looney Toons, with two oohs.

Advertisement

‘I am your father.’

Jedis on both sides of the Force might occasionally be compelled to agree, but everyone remembers this incorrectly (Spoiler Alert): When Darth Vader cuts off Luke Skywalker’s hand in Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back, he doesn’t say, “Luke, I am your father.”

The Berenstain Bears

Maybe it’s the cursive font choice that threw us for a loop, but a lot of people who grew up on this beloved childhood story collection remember The Berenstein Bears. The family’s name is actually spelled with an “a” not an “e.”

Monopoly

Not to be confused with Mr. Peanut of Planters® fame, but Monopoly™ Man never wore a monocle. Perhaps people misremember this iconic character wearing the accessory because it would be a symbol of money and fortune and pair well with his tiny top hat and coattails.

Fruit of the Loom

This one is a little fruity … but despite what you might think you recall, no, Fruit of the Loom™ logo ever had a cornucopia. Instead, it’s a bunch of fruit on a plain white background.

The Flintstones

You’re reading that correctly. Our favorite Stone Age family from Bedrock has two t’s in their name — they’ve never been called The Flinstones. It makes sense the more you think about it: Flint is a kind of sedimentary rock.

Mickey Mouse

Walt Disney’s flagship character’s first appearance in the 1928 animated short Steamboat Willie had Mickey Mouse steering the helm. The only thing he’s wearing? A pair of shorts. Mickey Mouse didn’t wear suspenders then and doesn’t now.

Jif Peanut Butter

Sure, you could throw together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a jiffy. But this brand of peanut butter, founded by the J.M. Smucker Co. in 1958, was always called Jif™, not Jiffy.

Advertisement

Pikachu’s tail

Pokémon fans may misremember Ash Ketchum’s star favorite Pikachu as having a black-tipped tail. To thunderous applause, Pikachu’s tail has always been stark yellow with brown at the base — not to be confused with its pre-evolution form, Pichu, which does have an all-black tail.

Shazaam

A ‘90s movie starring the comedian Sinbad in the role of a genie who can grant wishes? Sorry, it never existed despite the popular belief of many who’ve sworn they’ve seen it and have had VHS tapes of it when they were kids. More than likely, people may be getting it confused with Kazaam starring Shaquille O’Neal in a similar role. Or it was just a spirited way in an elaborate magic trick — you decide!

Why does the Mandela Effect happen?

Those who experience the Mandela Effect may do so as a result of what Dr. Bonner-Jackson refers to as false memories.

Typically, external stimuli like observations and experiences are processed in your brain as memory to be stored, and your hippocampus is involved in forming new memories. You can then retrieve these memories at a later time upon reflection. But memory is reconstructive, meaning there are a lot of influences on the way we remember things.

“Memory is not necessarily a carbon copy of reality,” explains Dr. Bonner-Jackson. “Memory is influenced by different biases, perceptions, preconceptions and expectations.”

This means memory can change over time as a person gains more information about what happened.

Take, for example, a memory you might have of a specific moment while on vacation with a friend. You both may remember different details about what happened on your trip based on your own perceptions and attention to different details.

Advertisement

Sometimes, false memories can occur when misleading information is provided. Some studies suggest this happens as a result of inflating your own imagination and the way you might receive false feedback. If someone tells you enough times they remember an event a specific way, even if it didn’t actually happen, your brain may convince you to believe in the same memories — what’s called “memory implantation.”

“Just by giving some misleading information, people can actually believe they have a memory that is different than what actually happened,” says Dr. Bonner-Jackson. “I think most dramatically, this happens in some court cases when, if someone has asked a question in a certain way, it may actually lead them to think they remembered something they didn’t actually remember.”

As our memory is reconstructive, we also tend to fill in the gaps with the information that’s provided to us and from our own internal biases when we have trouble remembering specific details.

In one study that examined how we create false memories, people were provided a list of related words and tasked with recalling them. In one list, for example, you might have the words “bed, rest, awake” — all associated with the word “sleep,” which wasn’t listed. Despite not being included, 40% of the time, people remembered the word “sleep” being on the list.

“If someone has information but they don’t have all of it or they don’t know the whole answer, they may misremember or reconstruct the event or situation based on what information they do have and try to fill in what probably happened,” explains Dr. Bonner-Jackson. “I think this comes from people’s need to make sense of the world around us.”

And when these memories are shared with one another, Dr. Bonner-Jackson compares the creation of false memories to the children’s game of Telephone.

“The message starts off one way and then after a while, the message gets muddled,” he illustrates. “Eventually, a lot of people have the wrong message.”

Combining all of these ideas with the innovation of the internet and how fast information spreads on social media, and you’ve got all the right ingredients for the Mandela Effect to occur.

When enough people disseminate the wrong information and play off each other’s collective misremembering, the truth can get buried or lost. Plus. it’s difficult to know whether your memory recall is always reliable.

For starters, there are several conditions that impact memory growth and loss. In many cases, suggestions for improving brain function include a healthy diet, improving your sleep schedule and exercising regularly.

The bottom line?

When it comes to investigating the truth behind presumably false memories, Dr. Bonner-Jackson says it’s up to you to determine what’s real and what’s hearsay.

“In many cases, the Mandela Effect deals with benign things. People remember a certain cereal being one way when it was another,” he notes.

“But in more serious cases, I think the biggest thing would be to try and confirm for yourself rather than take someone’s word for it and do some real research.”

Advertisement

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

People sitting in circle at group therapy
July 18, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
Chronic Hives and Mental Health: Self-Care Tips

Combat stress and anxiety — common chronic hives triggers — by focusing on sleep, staying active and leaning on others for support

Couple in bed, one asleep, the other typing on their cell phone
July 18, 2024/Sex & Relationships
How and When Emotional Cheating Crosses a Line

Fostering romantic and/or sexual feelings for other people outside of your relationship can lead to long-term consequences

Female painting a still life of a vase and fruits on canvas and easel
Self-Care Is Important When You’re Living With HER2-Negative Metastatic Breast Cancer

Taking care of yourself extends beyond symptom management and includes things like passion projects and meaningful moments

Person crying with heart-shaped hole in their chest
July 9, 2024/Mental Health
How To Overcome an Existential Crisis

Connecting with loved ones, keeping a gratitude journal and reframing the situation may help the dread dissipate

Group of women sitting in chairs in circle, some holding brochures, at cancer support group
HER2-Low Metastatic Breast Cancer: Finding Community

Support groups, financial assistance and survivorship programs are all readily available

Silohuette of person, with light aimed at their eye and brain
June 20, 2024/Mental Health
Feeling Stuck? Brainspotting May Help

This alternative brain-body therapy focuses on unlocking pent-up feelings, memories and tension that may be stuck in your brain and body

Older person smiling, taking in the outdoors
June 13, 2024/Mental Health
Put Intention Behind Your Walking Meditation

While walking, be mindful of your body, your mind, your place in the world and all five of your senses as you pave a path forward, one step at a time

Person checking watch at a rail station
June 5, 2024/Mental Health
How To Be Patient: 6 Strategies To Help You Keep Your Cool

In a world where instant gratification is the norm, you can train yourself to be more comfortable waiting patiently

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims

Ad