The Mandela Effect Can Make You Question Everything — but There's a Reason It Happens

Have you ever seen something and realized that what you're seeing isn't quite how you'd remembered it? Perhaps it's the cover art for the children's book series The Berenstain Bears, which you could've sworn was actually called The Berenstein Bears, or maybe it's something similar that isn't a major difference but just feels a little off.

This phenomenon, known as the Mandela Effect, has been popularized over the past few years as more people have collectively begun to share experiences of remembering a brand, show, quote, or item as different than what it originally was. The Mandela Effect theory has stirred up its fair share of opinions, with some attributing this lapse in what's real versus what is not to the presence of an alternate universe, but the cause of this phenomenon can be explained with a more scientific approach, involving our brains.

What Is the Mandela Effect?

"The Mandela Effect is a psychological phenomenon in which a large group of people remember a historical event, completely falsely," says Aliza Shapiro, LCSW, a NY-based licenced psychotherapist and POPSUGAR Mental Health Advisory Board Member. It's also used more commonly to describe the misremembering of certain pop culture references, like a brand, show, or quote.

The term was coined by a researcher named Fiona Bloom, who realized that she, along with many others, remembered significant details about the story of Nelson Mandela's death incorrectly, per Shapiro.

Bloom distinctly recalled former South African president Nelson Mandela dying while being imprisoned in the 1980s. Except, Mandela actually died in 2013, decades after being released from prison. Stunned by the notion that Mandela had not died when and in the way she thought he did, though she clearly remembered extensive news coverage of the event, Bloom started her own website to try and connect with others who had similar memories. Her own misremembering was strange enough, but stranger still was the fact that she found many, many others who had the same false memories of Mandela's 1980s "death." Now, there are many other, similar incidences of collective misremembering.

What Causes the Mandela Effect?

So, what's the explanation behind the Mandela Effect? Well, there's the aforementioned theory that it's evidence of an alternate universe. But there's also a more earthly, and realistic, explanation to be found. The cause of the phenomenon can be attributed to how our brains create and store memories.

"Memories are rarely exact representations of past events," Shapiro tells POPSUGAR. The way she explains it, human minds encode and store memories not just based on facts, but based on emotion, association, perception, and interpretation, too. "Then, as we try to recall specific memories, we are subject to the influence of our own imagination, neurocognitive changes, priming, and misinformation from other people (think social media) as well," Shapiro says.

The brain has also been known to "confabulate, or fill in missing pieces of memories that are difficult to recall, completely irrespective of whether or not those details truly happened at all," Shapiro says. "People commonly think that recalling a memory is like watching a movie of their past, but it is actually more like writing a novel based on emotional, social, and neurocognitive influence, while trying to recall your past."

Mandela Effect Examples

There are tons of examples of the Mandela Effect that have been circulated over the years. But here are some of the most common mix-ups:

  • The Berenstein Bears Mandela Effect: The beloved series of children's books we once adored as kids is not The Berenstein Bears as so many of us recall on books and VHS tapes, but rather, The Berenstain Bears.
  • Pikachu Tail Mandela Effect:If you visualize Pikachu, you of course think of his lighting-bolt-shaped yellow tail, and you probably picture it with black detailing. Turns out, Pikachu's tail has always been yellow and yellow only.
  • Shazaam Mandela Effect: If you were a kid growing up in the '90s, you might distinctly remember a movie called Shaazam that featured popular actor Sinbad as a genie — but this never existed! Instead, there was Kazaam, a movie with famous NBA player Shaquille O'Neal as the lead.
  • Jiffy Peanut Butter Mandela Effect: When eating a PB&J, you're probably more concerned with the peanut-butter-to-jelly ratio, the crunch vs. smooth debacle, or the jelly flavor than you are with the brand of peanut butter used. If you're curious about the brand, though, you might remember Jiffy peanut butter being a favorite among your family and friends. But it was never Jiffy! It was Jif the whole time.
  • Oscar Meyer Mandela Effect: When thinking of the popular hot dog brand, chances are you remember the jingle, "I wish I were an Oscar _____ Weiner," or the infamous weiner-mobile commercials, but do you recall the brand being spelled Mayer instead of Meyer? The correct spelling is with an "a," but many people remember the "e" spelling, which makes things even more confusing.
  • Monopoly Man Mandela Effect: There are a few things that come to mind when picturing the monopoly man: his mustache, his tuxedo, and the infamous monocle he wears around his eye. Just kidding! The monopoly man never had a monocle (apparently), and the world has never been the same.
  • "Luke, I am Your Father" Mandela Effect: Even if you're not a fan of the Star Wars movie franchise, you are probably familiar with the mega-famous quote uttered by Darth Vader, "Luke, I am your father." Turns out, most of us have misquoted this all along, and the real quote is, "No, I am your father."
  • "We Are the Champions" Mandela Effect: One of Queen's most popular and beloved songs, "We are the Champions," has become an anthem for sports teams and anyone needing a motivational boost. Most people remember lead singer Freddie Mercury ending the song by singing the lyrics, ". . . 'cause we are the champions . . . of the world," but the original lyrics simply cut after the word "champions." How is this possible? Mercury did sing the "of the world" part during the Live Aid performance of the song in 1985, and listeners must have stuck with that version of the song.

Is the Mandela Effect Dangerous?

It's generally harmless when referring to movies or pop culture references. But the phenomenon is also evidence that large groups of people can convince themselves of certain falsehoods and when you're talking about more serious topics, like news, history, and politics, it can have more serious implications. The internet also complicates things when it comes to spreading misinformation. "As social media platforms grow, more voices gain reach; and as more information is spread, more memories are created," Shapiro says. "As we ingest information, it's important to look into facts, tune out sources that don't seem credible, and stand up for what we believe in even if it goes against the grain."

That said, mental health conditions can impact what and how we recall information. "For example, individuals suffering from depression may more readily encode negative life events than positive ones," says Shapiro. But there is a strong difference between repressed memories (often formed through trauma) and false memories (which can be formed via the Mandela effect), and "working with a skilled therapist to help determine the difference can be a vital part of the treatment process."

If you're concerned about misremembering something or that your false memories may actually be repressed memories, Shapiro has a few suggestions:

  • Corroborate the facts with trusted sources, such as family members that you know have your absolute best interest at heart. It's important to have others help us fill the blank spaces in our memories so our minds don't do it for us.
  • Trust your mind, and your body. Notice if you only have memories in your mind, or if your body seems to want to avoid certain places, a specific person, or specific forms of physical touch.
  • Stay in touch with reality. Going over the facts that you are sure of, repeatedly, can be an effective way to jar the rest of your memories.
  • Work with a skilled trauma therapist who can help you try to understand your mind, emotions, and history. Trauma healing is never meant to be done alone.

— Additional reporting by Alexis Jones