Is It Berenstein or Berenstain? The Mandela Effect and Creation of False Memories

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Is it the Berenstain Bears or Berenstein Bears? Did Curious George really not have a tail? Wasn’t it called Sex in the City and not Sex and the City?

All of these misperceptions constitute what is called the Mandela Effect, which is gaining in popularity as more and more people share their memories about possessions from childhood on social media. Every day more and more people are realizing that their recollections of books, television shows and historical events are in fact incorrect, despite having strong memories of the contrary. So how can so many people have untrue memories and how can a majority of people share these alternative reminiscences?

The first theory, and the most popular floating around on social media, is the aforementioned Mandela Effect. Coined by paranormal enthusiast Fiona Broome, the Mandela Effect conspires that some of us are actually living in a parallel universe where our realities are slightly different from one another. In other words, the books are called Berenstain in universe A and Berenstein in universe B. The fact that we can interact with persons from the supplementary universe can be easily explained, according to Broome, by a time traveler moving across these distinct worlds.

Broome first theorized this wacky concept after realizing in 2010 that Nelson Mandela did not in fact die in prison in the 80’s but was still alive. After sharing her experience with others, she quickly recognized that others shared in her memory of Mandela passing thirty years prior to his actual death, with others holding the same detailed memories about his funeral and even protests that ensued after. The effect has quickly grown to include changes to spellings of well-remembered brand names and altered logos, all of which can be “explained” by someone intentionally tampering with history.

Why somebody would travel across parallel universes to only meddle with children’s books is unknown, but there is an eerie feeling that sinks in when you look back and see things that seem so lucid but yet are disproven by facts and pictures. Psychologists and anyone with a half-sane mind can see through the logic of the Mandela Effect and have instead researched the concept of false memories.

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Which Curious George do you remember?

 A false memory can be summarized as:

“A mental experience that is mistakenly taken to be a veridical representation of an event from one’s personal past. Memories can be false in relatively minor ways (e.g., believing one last saw the keys in the kitchen when they were in the living room) and in major ways that have profound implications for oneself and others (e.g., mistakenly believing one is the originator of an idea or that one was sexually abused as a child).”

The concept of false memories first became apparent due to false eye-witness testimony. Often times a witness’ account of a crime can be disproven by forensic evidence even though the witness fully believes what they remember was the correct iteration of the misconduct. In one dramatic case, a school teacher was convicted of 115 accounts of sexually abusing children in her preschool class. She served four years in prison before a council of 50 scientists refuted her conviction saying that the children had generated false memories involving their teacher.

So how do these false, and oftentimes dangerous, memories flood our consciousness? As much as we would like to believe, our brains are not perfect computers. We are constantly processing sensory information and committing such material into short term memory, meaning that some of our memories get lost or replaced by new memories. Unsurprisingly, most of the memories traditionally associated with the Mandela Effect concern our childhoods.  The Berenstein Bears and Curious George series are seldom read after age eight, that is, unless you have a real penchant for anthropomorphic cartoon characters.

In addition, as we age our brains learn to process information faster by looking at patterns across varying stimuli. Semantics and reading are areas where these shortcuts are used daily. The more often we see specific words or spellings, the more likely we are to apply them to arbitrary concepts. For example, many remember the cereal “Froot Loops” as “Fruit Loops” simply because we have seen the word “fruit” in more capacities than the fictitious word “froot.” One explanation for more people reminiscing about Berenstein than Berenstain is the fact that we have seen the spelling “stein” more often in names such as Albert Einstein and in words such as “beer stein”.

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It should be noted that most memories that we confuse are not of particular importance. At the end of the day do we really care what the name of Sarah Jessica Parker’s TV show was? Emotions are integral to the development of important memories and we can easily remember events that hold emotional significance. There is a type of memory coined a flashbulb memory in which events that hold extreme emotional impact are imprinted into our brains like a photograph. One example of a flashbulb memory is that the majority of Americans can accurately recall where they were and what they were doing when they were first informed about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In studying false memories psychologists have even found ways to implant false memories, playing on these concepts of semantics and emotions. One proponent of memory implantation was Carl Sagan, a cosmetologist, who wrote that “memory can be contaminated. False memories can be implanted even in minds that do not consider themselves vulnerable and uncritical,” in his tome The Demon-Haunted World.

In determining that semantics plays a critical role in false memories, Elizabeth Loftus, a researcher at the University of Washington, devised an experiment where participants watched a video of a car crash. After viewing the film, half of the participants were asked how fast the cars were travelling when they “smashed” into each other while the other half of participants were asked about the speed of the collision when the cars simply “hit” each other. Both groups were asked to return for further questioning a week later to recall their perceptions of the video.

Unsurprisingly, the subjects whose question was posited with the word “smashed” were more likely to assert falsely that there was broken glass at the scene of the accident. Virtually none of the partakers in the “hit” group stated that they remembered broken glass. Because the word “smash” is commonly associated with broken objects, the members of this group were more likely to create false memories in which broken glass was prominently featured in the film. “Hit” does not have the connotation of items being destroyed and therefore did not allow for the fabrication of a false memory.

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Is there a dash in Kit Kat?

Loftus continued her research on false memory to include how emotions play a role in the ease of implanting fake memories. In one study, Loftus asked family members of participants to provide stories about three events that occurred during the subject’s childhood that were banal. In addition to these three stories, the experimenters fabricated a story in which the subject was lost in a mall at the age of five, an event that can be quite tragic for a toddler. In fact, the story was ordered in a way to induce emotion from the participant. The story begins with the child being lost for an extended period of time, the child then crying because of it, and then the subject being comforted by an elderly lady and reunited with their family.

When asked which of the four stories they remembered, 29% of contributors recalled the false memory as true. Amazingly, 25% of those who recalled the emotional trauma of being separated from their family insisted that the event did in fact occur even after being told by researchers that they had fabricated the story. This not only substantiates the fact that emotions play an integral role in the creation of correct memories but opens the doors to the fact that trauma can invoke false memories, as in the case where the children falsely remembered being assaulted by their teacher.

While it may be hard to believe that some of your precious childhood memories may not be real, false memories can be found and induced anywhere. Next time you see something that doesn’t look quite like you remember it don’t automatically assume that it is because a time traveling wizard crossed dimensions to change the Kit-Kat logo, but know that your brain is working to keep important memories at the forefront. But if you do believe that you’re living in an alternate reality, you might want to check to see if your brain is working right..

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