Despite all the rain, the first day of summer arrived last week. This started my wife Diane and I humming “Summertime,” the famous Gershwin song from the folk opera “Porgy and Bess.” We listened to several versions of this song, including an early one by Billie Holiday, a classic rendition by Ella Fitzgerald, and a Sam Cooke cover. In all of these version the third verse is sung as “Your Daddy’s rich and your ma is good looking.” I would have bet anything that the correct word was “mama,” but it appears “ma” is the actual word intended. That’s what appears on the original 1935 piano vocal score. It is disconcerting when you hear or see something that contradicts what you considered a definitive memory. 

Memories are not permanent objective recordings of actual events. They are ever-changing perceptions of past experiences. Psychologists believed that every time we retrieve a memory we reconstruct it. Over time, some aspects become more pronounced, while others fade. Memories merge together and other people’s narratives of the event get incorporated, as if they were part of the original memory.

While all of our memories are probably distorted to some degree, in most instances this doesn’t matter very much. Occasionally there will be a slip-up with serious consequences. A friend remembered having eye drops in the medicine cabinet and discovered the hard way that they were actually eardrops.

People also frequently find themselves in arguments over the details of events. Until recently, many of these disputes went unresolved. With the advent of the internet, however, people now have access to more answers than ever before. While there are questions about the reliability of internet information, it still is often used to settle such disputes. The internet may reinforce false narratives such as when inaccurate information is intentionally published or when simulations are mistaken for real events.

Fiona Broome, a paranormal researcher and author from the U.K, coined the term “The Mandela Effect” in 2009 to describe memories that differ from what’s widely accepted as the truth. Often these memories are share by many people. Psychologists Neil Dagnall, and Ken Drinkwater from Manchester Metropolitan University, described the 2010 confusion surrounding the death of South African President Nelson Mandela that led to the term “Mandela Effect.” In internet postings a large number of people expressed their belief that Mandela died in prison in the 1980s. In reality, Mandela was released from prison in 1990, was elected South African president in 1994, and passed away in 2013. Nevertheless, people still claimed that they remember watching clips of his 1980s funeral on television.

Drawing from popular culture, a number of other examples of collective misremembering were soon identified. For example, most people recall the robot C-3PO from Star Wars as being entirely gold in color, when in fact one of his legs was silver. Most people believe that the Evil Queen in Disney’s Snow White says, “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” when the actual phrase is “magic mirror on the wall.” Many people report remembering the name of the famous children’s book series as being the Berenstein Bears, instead of the Berenstain Bears. I personally remembered the correct name, but only because I always thought it looked and sounded wrong.

Broome tried explaining the Mandela Effect with some rather bizarre pseudoscientific theories involving parallel universes and even time travel. These theories are perhaps why The Mandela Effect was eventually memorialized in an “X-Files” episode.

Contemporary psychological research explains this effect as a function of ordinary memory processes. People routinely fill in the gaps in their memories so they make more sense. The Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm may also account for some of the effect. This phenomena refers to how some words can evoke memories of events that didn’t occur. For example when people are given a list of words to memorize that contain closely related items such as “bed” and “pillow” they often report seeing the word “sleep,” even if it was never presented.

Sometimes, when subjected to the same experience, a number of people might imagine something else happening that they would have preferred to see. This fantasy seems so appropriate that they might push out the real memory in favor of the fantasy. For example, after being in an argument we often think of a number of things we should have said. After a while we may come to believe that we actually said some of these things. We probably tend to misremember in similar ways because we share common cognitive and brain structures. I don’t believe, however, that personally significant events are subject to the Mandela Effect. I doubt whether many South Africans didn’t know the true timeline of Mandela’s life.

The next time, however, I look something up on the internet, perhaps I’ll be less surprised at how imperfect my memory is. And by the way the 1998 television show was titled “Sex and the City” not “Sex in the City,” Hannibal Lecter never said “Hello, Clarice,” and Curious George never had a tail.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems, or is he? He can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com.