The Mandela Effect: because it’s easier to assume alternate universes than faulty memories

One of the things I love the internet for is its conspiracy theories. My absolute favourite is this one, where James Cameron’s career is interpreted in the light of his role as a key weapon in the battle between good and evil Masons (but why are there good and evil Masons? That requires the theory to take us all the way back to Atlantis…)

In our universe, this definitely happened.
In our universe, this definitely happened.
So, when someone earlier today on Twitter linked to the Mandela Effect website, I was naturally intrigued. The Mandela Effect falls into that confused territory between conspiracy theory and weird belief system that you often find in these corners of the internet. It’s named after some people’s belief that they have memories about how Nelson Mandela died in prison, so never got to be President of South Africa and everything else that happened after his release. They believe that either history was changed, or that they slipped into a parallel universe where that event happened before coming back to ours where they were confused to find that it hadn’t.

It’s an interesting science fictional idea, and one used in many time travel stories from Bring the Jubilee onwards – just who might remember the original timeline when history is changed? – but for me it doesn’t work in reality for two key reasons.

First, look at the list of ‘wrong’ memories people have reported on the site and notice how many of them are related to pop culture (and how few are major world events like the early death of Mandela). Assuming we’re in a world where William of Ockham existed, the simplest answer – that people often misremember news about relatively unimportant things, but don’t like to be told they’re wrong – seems a better explanation than ‘mysterious forces are changing history and/or playing with our memories’.

Second, all these changes in history seem to have had no effect on the people recalling these memories. One of my favourite books is Lisa Tuttle’s Lost Futures which is about a woman who finds herself experiencing parallel realities, first in her dreams and then actually living through them. Similar to Kim Newman’s Life’s Lottery, it’s about how the choices we make shape the person we turn out to be. In Tuttle’s novel, the lead character finds while the universe stays relatively similar, her life is radically different depending on the choices she made, right down to her name. People are much more likely to remember the details of their own life than what they may have heard on the news a few years ago (how many times have you done a quick Google to check if Celebrity X is alive or dead?) and yet the evidence they’re claiming for random experiences from parallel universes isn’t ‘I was living in a different city, with a different partner and job, and oh yeah, Nelson Mandela died in the 80s’ but a somehow unchanging sense of self amidst an ever changing history.

Like any conspiracy theory, the Mandela Effect is interesting for what it reveals about those who believe in it. We want to believe our memories are perfect records of our histories because they’re an important part of what we are, so when we discover that we’ve been remembering something wrongly, we can either admit our fallibility, or adopt the position that the universe must be fallible instead. Mind you, when you live in a world where Donald Trump appears to be a credible Presidential candidate, there is always the temptation to believe you’ve missed the turn at Albuquerque that’ll take you back to your own universe.