Have you even been absolutely certain you saw or did (or didn’t do) something, right down to the most minute detail, only to discover later that the opposite was true?
Perhaps you remember buying something—say, some cans of tuna—on a particular run to the supermarket. You clearly recall picking up the cans, putting them in your shopping cart, paying for them. But no, when you look for them in the cupboard, there are no cans of tuna, and no-one else in the family remembers you buying them.
If you have had this sort of experience, you are not losing your mind! And you are not alone. This is quite a common phenomenon. Known as a false memory or pseudo memory, it is simply the apparent recollection of an event that did not actually occur, especially (but not always) during childhood.
Why Does This Happen?
The purpose of our memory is to store information that will help and guide our behavior in
the future. It is not meant to be a perfect recorder of history. For this reason, it is selective, tending to mix up bits and pieces of events we have experienced and others that we have seen, heard about, or even imagined. Memories can be distorted by a number of factors such as suggestion, association, bias, imagination, peer pressure, health issues, and psychological trauma. We should, therefore, be skeptical of our memories rather than taking them at face value.
Individual False Memories
The general professional opinion is that the only way to distinguish between a true or a false
memory is by external corroboration, even though the person remembering the event is positive that their recollection is exact.
In a widely-publicized example of what appears to be an individual false memory, President Donald Trump has insisted that he saw “thousands and thousands of people” cheering on the streets of Jersey City, NJ, when the twin towers fell on September 11, 2001. While no proof has come to light to corroborate his statement (no video footage, no photos, no other witnesses declaring they saw the same thing, no confirmation by police—who actually say that the event did not happen), he continues to assert that he is 100% right and that his memory is factual and exact.
In a 2010 study conducted at Hull University in the UK, participants remembered clearly impossible events. One respondent reported having a vivid memory of Santa Claus climbing down the chimney even though, as an adult, she did not believe in Santa Claus. Other participants reported memories of having seen live dinosaurs or monsters, or having flown unaided in the air. In fact, over 20% of the participants in the study reported having at least one clear memory they no longer believed.
Shared False Memories
In some cases, a large number of people misremember the same identical event or fact in the same way. This phenomenon of collective or shared false memories is now called the Mandela Effect, a term coined by American paranormal consultant Fiona Broome. In 2010, Broome realized that she shared a false memory of South African human rights activist Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s. (Mandela was still alive at the time; he died in December, 2013, three years after Broome’s discovery.)
There are now a multitude of well-known examples of shared memories that have turned out to be false. Do you remember any of these?
- The children’s books and television series, The Berenstain Bears is often remembered by people as The Berenstein Bears, with an ‘e’ replacing the ‘a’ in the name.
- The death and televised funeral of American evangelist Billy Graham several years ago. (As of this writing, he is still alive.)
- The classic portrait of King Henry VIII holding a turkey leg. This painting does not exist.
- The iconic line in the 1980 movie, The Empire Strikes Back, where Dark Vader says, “Luke, I am your father.” The actual line is, “No, I am your father.”
- The long-running Saturday morning comics were called Looney Tunes and not, as many people remember, Looney Toons.
- Did the Ford logo always have that little curly-cue on the end of the ‘F’? Some people remember it not being there but yes, it always has been.
- During the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, one protester was seen confronting a line of tanks. People remember seeing footage and reading that the man was run over but in fact, he was hauled away unharmed by two other men.
- Nestlé’s Kit Kat chocolate bar, created in 1935, has never had a hyphen in its name, although many people remember it as Kit-Kat.
- Curious George, the little chimp featured in books, animated television series and movies, never had a tail, although some people swear he does or did in the past.
- Kellogg’s Froot Loops cereal was never called Fruit Loops.
- And finally, Hannibal Lecter never says, “Hello Clarice,” in the 1991 movie, The Silence of the Lambs, even though I personally remember him saying this iconic—but falsely remembered—line. He actually says, “Good morning,” upon meeting Clarice, and later, “Well, Clarice.”
All of this leads, naturally, to the question: what could cause hundreds or thousands of people to falsely remember the same thing?
There is as yet no scientific explanation. It may be that such false memories are simply so-called “glitches in the matrix.” A person’s memory is gradually distorted by subsequent information. In some cases, the misleading information can actually override the original memory.
Fiona Broome adheres to the “many worlds” or “multiverse” theory based on principles of quantum mechanics. She suggests that people who remember a different past from the rest of us have actually been to a parallel reality with a different timeline that somehow got crossed with ours.
Regardless of the how’s and why’s, false memories do exist. Try comparing your own recollections of the examples mentioned above, or some important event in your past, with friends and family, and see how much you do—or don’t—agree on.
BY: Donna Marie West
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF SOURCES
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