Some claim that certain common false memories are evidence for alternate realities.
Ever have one of those moments where you watch an old movie or pick up an old book, and hear a quote or see something that stands in stark contrast to what you thought you remembered? We all have. But what about a special case, where the exact same broken memory is shared by a large number of people? At first glance, it seems like this must be something different. It’s no surprise that any of us individually might remember something wrong; but for a whole group to share an identical false memory seems to suggest that there might be a new phenomenon at work. It’s been called the Mandela Effect.
The Mandela Effect is named for one of its most famous examples, that of Nelson Mandela, whose funeral some people remembered after he supposedly died in prison. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison in South Africa, but he survived it and was released in 1990. He was President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, and some of those same people said “Wait, he died in prison, I watched the funeral on TV.” He didn’t actually die until 2013; and every time his name came up, these same people said “Wait a minute, I thought he was dead.”
Now, this group who erroneously remembered that Mandela had died did not include me, but I’m sure some people thought he had. One who did was psychic ghost hunter Fiona Broome, who writes that she discovered that some people she knew also thought that Mandela had died. Seeking an explanation for what she described as an “emerging phenomenon”, she turned not to social science, but to some nebulous concept of alternate realities. In her own words:
The “Mandela Effect” is what happens when someone has a clear memory of something that never happened in this reality. Many of us — mostly total strangers — remember the exact same events with the exact same details. However, our memories are different from what’s in history books, newspaper archives, and so on. This isn’t a conspiracy, and we’re not talking about “false memories.” Many of us speculate that parallel realities exist, and we’ve been “sliding” between them without realizing it. (Others favor the idea that we’re each enjoying holodeck experiences, possibly with some programming glitches. In my opinion, these aren’t mutually exclusive.)
Is a lot of people remembering something wrong evidence for alternate realities? Not really.
It is disheartening that we have to return to pseudosciences that have been debunked decades ago, because they continue to linger despite being eviscerated by scientific scrutiny. Belief systems and myths have incredible cultural inertia, and they are difficult to eradicate completely. That is why belief in astrology, while in the minority, persists.
Professions, however, should be different. A healing profession should be held to a certain minimum standard of care, and that standard should be based upon something real, which means that scientific evidence needs to be brought to bear. Professionals are not excused for persisting in false beliefs that have long been discredited.
The 1980s saw the peak of an idea that was never based on science, the notion that people can suppress memories of traumatic events, and those repressed memories can manifest as seemingly unconnected mental health issues, such as anxiety or eating disorders. The idea was popularized mostly by the book The Courage to Heal (the 20th anniversary edition was published in 2008), in which the authors took the position that clients, especially women, who have any problem should be encouraged to recover memories of abuse, and if such memories can be dredged up, they are real.
The notion of repressed memories led in part to the satanic panic of the 1980s, and many of those subjected to recovering techniques not only “remembered” being abused, but being part of satanic ritual abuse.
Recovered memory syndrome was a massive failure on the part of the mental health profession. The ideas, which were extraordinary, were never empirically demonstrated. Further, basic questions were insufficiently asked – is there any empirical evidence to support the amazing events emerging from therapy, for example? Is it possible that the recovered memories are an artifact of therapy and are not real?
Now, with three decades of hindsight, we can say a few things with a high degree of confidence.
When someone looks at me and earnestly says, “I know what I saw,” I am fond of replying, “No you don’t.” You have a distorted and constructed memory of a distorted and constructed perception, both of which are subservient to whatever narrative your brain is operating under.
One of the more dramatic aspects of memory distortion is false memories. These can be completely fabricated memories that are indistinguishable from genuine memories. False memories can involve small details, or entire scenarios. One way to fabricate false memories is with suggestion – just suggesting to someone a detail of an experience they had may cause them to incorporate that detail into their memory of the experience.
The apparent reason for this is that our brains appear to favor consistency over accuracy. Memories are updated to bring them into line with our current knowledge. If we are told that the person was wearing a blue jacket, then our memory might change so that it is consistent with what we now believe to be true.
Psychologists have a number of ways of generating false memories in the lab. One method is to show subjects a video of an event. Then allow them to read a written description of the same event, containing or even just suggesting details that differ from the video. A certain percentage of subjects will incorporate the suggested but incorrect details into their memory. When asked they will “remember” those details in the video.
A new study combines false memory research with the effects of sleep deprivation. It is becoming increasingly clear that sleep plays a major role in memory formation and consolidation. Steven J. Frenda of the University of California, Irvine and his colleagues asked a simple question – would sleep deprivation increase the formation of false memories?
They had subjects view photos of a crime, then . . .