Unreliable Memories And The Supernatural

Do you remember that show with the talking bears when we were younger? They lived in a big treehouse in Bear Country. There was the Papa Bear, the oafish carpenter, the wise Mama Bear, and their children, Brother Bear, Sister Bear, and Honey Bear. Do you remember the name of this show? The Berenst___ Bears. Fill in the blank.

Now look up the actual name of the show. Were you correct in your spelling? If not, why do you think not?

Moving on, here are some quotations and catchphrases that were never originally said by the characters in various TV shows and movies:

  • “Beam me up, Scotty” by various Star Trek characters
  • “Just the facts, ma’am” by Jack Webb
  • “Elementary, my dear Watson” by Sherlock Holmes
  • “Luke, I am your father” by Darth Vader
  • “Play it again, Sam” by Lisa in Casablanca
  • “Do you feel lucky, punk?” by Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry

There are a lot of these. Here, have some more:

  • The Chappelle’s Show is now “Chappelle’s Show”
  • Looney Toons is now Looney Tunes
  • “Mirror, mirror on the wall” now is “Magic mirror on the wall”
  • Oscar Meyer Wieners is now Oscar Mayer Wieners
  • “Depends” underwear is now just “Depend” underwear
  • “Febreeze” is now just “Febreze”

This phenomenon is known as the Mandela Effect, after many people in the Western world remembering that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the ’80s. However, his actual death was in 2013. This is despite individuals having vivid memories of seeing clips of his funeral on television. The term was invented and then popularized by Fiona Broome, a paranormal consultant.

The intense cognitive dissonance that results from being seemingly wrong about such vivid memories have caused many investigating the phenomenon to conclude that there must have been a timeline split in our world at some point, where we are now living in Universe B instead of Universe A.

Another theory is that we are in some sort of simulation and that there are programming glitches that cause these false memories. That is, the world changed but our memories did not.

However, before we get into all that, are there any likely explanations for why this could be happening? After all, it does seem suspicious that so many people share these faulty memories.

Let’s start off with what we started with: The Berenstain Bears. When I first heard about this, even I thought it was spelled “The Berenstein Bears”. Why? Because the ending “stein” is extremely common. So pervasive was this error that even official packaging had the error. Even people who are shown “The Berenstain Bears” logo for the first time, told to remember the spelling, and then immediately asked about it still think it is spelled with the “stein” ending. Brains are efficient and fill in the gaps with known patterns rather than do needless work.

Similarly, no one who lives in South Africa thinks Nelson Mandela died in prison. He was their first post-apartheid president. How could they? Likewise, no one in Japan thinks their islands used to be where the Philippines are. No one in Canada thinks they have only four provinces. People in Febreze factories don’t think it used to be called “Febreeze.” These effects are always falsified when those close to the subject in question never experience the phenomenon. But what causes this confusion?

Let’s use “Chappelle’s Show” as a demonstrable example.

In this case, it’s not surprising to be confused, because many other shows prefixed their title with “The”. “The Jerry Springer Show”, “The Steve Harvey Show”, “The Chris Rock Show”, “The Dr. Oz Show”, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”, “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, “The Graham Norton Show”, “The Wendy Williams Show”, etc. People noticed a pattern and filled in the blanks with what sounds right.

Speaking of what sounds right, doesn’t Febreeze sound right? After all, it’s an air freshener that has the sound “breeze” in the name! Also, aren’t they Looney Toons, as in cartoons?

People have a model of reality and how things should look or sound, so it comes at quite a shock to us when something isn’t as it should be. For example, with many of the quotes above, the original is not nearly as pithy as the well-known version. Also, the original often lacks context. If you were at a party and wanted to reference a movie quote, you would say “Luke, I am your father” and not “No, I am your father” to avoid confusion and to provide proper context.

Often times the popularized quotations are made up whole cloth, because they sound like something the character would say, and the new quotation is more memorable than the original.

Occam’s razor is the problem solving heuristic that basically states that the simplest solution is usually the right one. So in this case, what would you consider more likely?

  • A: These are all common misconceptions arising from the convergence of many factors: suggestibility influencing memory, preconceived models and stereotypes being violated, confirmation and other cognitive biases, narcissism, ignorance, etc.
  • B: This is evidence of there being parallel dimensions or alternate timelines.

B is so strange. Why would glitches in the matrix manifest as people remembering brand names incorrectly? Why would the glitch overwrite photographic and video evidence but not memories? Why are only some people affected? Why do so many Mandela Effects have such simple explanations? Why are these glitches in the matrix limited to such benign quirks?

Enough about the Mandela Effect though. What about all those kids who think they’re reincarnated and can explain their past lives? The stories all basically go like this:

  1. Around the age of three, some children start recalling memories of a past life.
  2. These recollections are extremely vivid and detailed.
  3. They ask to be taken somewhere to prove their claims.
  4. They turn out to be accurate.
  5. Much awe is had, but usually by the age of seven their memories fade.

Okay. So, this is clearly extraordinary and can be very convincing if you read the articles. Often times these kids explain in astonishing detail events or places that they never could have known of, and then they turn out to be right. How else could this be happening? Well, I could think of a few ways:

  1. Maybe the parents made the whole thing up and just wanted media attention so they coached the kid on what to say. Maybe they wanted money so they could write a book about it?
  2. Maybe the kids picked up this information somewhere. Maybe they saw this place on the TV, internet, magazine, or whatever, and then they identify so strongly with it that they become convinced it happened to them. It’s not exactly controversial that children are extremely suggestible. You can implant memories in 25% of kids pretty easily.
  3. Maybe the kid overhead the parents talking about this while they didn’t know he or she was there. Then they’re later coaxed along with leading questions similar to how fortune tellers operate.
  4. People have a strong tendency to see meaning where there isn’t any. That is, confirmation bias may cause the parents to rightfully disregard the majority of the child’s ramblings but will latch on to anything that seems vaguely sensical.
  5. Maybe by pure chance this figment of their imagination turned out to be accurate. This sounds ridiculous but consider how many children there are at all times. Is it so unbelievable with all the wacky things kids say that a couple out of a million will strike gold eventually?
  6. Kids don’t understand verb tenses, so when they say something like “when I was your age, I changed your diapers”, they might mean that when they are his age, he or she will perform these actions.
  7. Maybe the child wants to fit in and others around him or her talk of past lives and since the difference between reality and fantasy for children is quite blurred, they may come up with and tell these stories and sincerely believe them.
  8. Maybe the detail wasn’t quite as accurate as the parents initially thought, and the Barnum effect is playing a large role. Think of how all horoscopes all sound extremely accurate to you even though they’re often contradictory with one another.

If you need any further convincing that children can be lead to honestly believe false memories, look no further than here. Around a third of people “who were exposed to a fake print advertisement that described a visit to Disneyland and how they met and shook hands with Bugs Bunny later said they remembered or knew the event happened to them.” This never could have happened because Bugs Bunny belongs to Warner Bros. and could never be featured in any Walt Disney Co. property. Yet a sizable percentage truly believe that this happened to them and can describe in detail the events of the day.

There are also questions that cast further doubt on these claims: if reincarnation is real, how can population sizes grow? Where are all the extra souls coming from? Why has this phenomenon never been documented in a controlled, scientific study? Why does this only happen with some kids and not others, and why are they more likely to be male? Why are they more often memories of kings and generals, and not of commoners? One is a lot more common than the other. You’d think there’d be more memories of dying a poor peasant in China or India, considering their population.

So I ask again, what is more likely?

  • A: These children actually are being reincarnated and this is one of the first proven claims of supernatural activity.
  • B: Any of the above is playing a role in causing these unusual circumstances.

Okay, maybe I’m being a bit unfair and only going after low-hanging fruit. We know by now that human memory is quite fallible and suggestible, so many of these earlier claims can be quickly dismissed. What about stronger memories? Like, say, for example, where you were during the JFK assassination or when the twin towers fell. Do you remember?

These are known as flashbulb memories. They’re called such because they’re a highly detailed and exceptionally vivid ‘snapshot’ of the circumstances of a significant event. They’re some of the best we’ve got. We generally forget what we’ve had for by lunch and most days end up as blurs in the memory banks, but at least these events we know to be true. We have exceptional recall of the entire day’s events and we’re highly confident of even the finest details.

But, as I’m sure you can imagine by the trend so far in this post, these memories too often have dubious accuracy, despite the overwhelming confidence of its adherents. In fact, flashbulb memories are notable for this exact discrepancy: although these memories are experienced with such vividness and confidence, their accuracy is typical of regular memories.

Why is this? Well, memories stick through rehearsal. So either you don’t rehearse the memory and you forget it, or you rehearse it and inevitably some errors sneak their way in, which then become part of the memory. You cannot re-experience the event so errors eventually accumulate without opportunity for correction and rationalizations and other interventions must take place to make sense of the errors. Try to imagine continuously saving a JPEG over and over, losing even more quality and creating more artifacts with each successive save. The individuals have then relived this memory so many times that they are extremely confident in its accuracy, yet are unaware of how much it has shifted and morphed over time.

Now don’t get me wrong – the evidence suggests that flashbulb memories can be quite accurate, depending on personal involvement, proximity, significance, etc. but they are mostly less accurate than the adherents believe.

This is why courts are rightfully becoming increasingly suspicious of eyewitness testimony. Although a group of individuals can be extremely confident in what they saw, they often can all be wrong, and people can be wrongfully convicted. The prior link tells the case of Kirk Bloodsworth (that last name probably didn’t help), a man sentenced to death row for the rape and murder of a nine year old. Five eyewitnesses testified that he had been with the victim, and he was convicted. He was eventually exonerated after nine years of false imprisonment when DNA fingerprinting found the real killer. All of the eyewitnesses were wrong about their shared memory.

A friend of mine is entirely convinced that on rare occasions of sleep deprivation that she has had out of body experiences that led to information otherwise impossible to glean. In her specific case she was lying in bed when the out of body experience began. She then drifted downstairs and listened in on the conversations her parents were having. After the event was over, she amazed her mother with fine details of the private conversation despite being physically absent. How could this happen? What explanations could there be for this? Let’s try some:

  1. Maybe her parents were messing with her, and it was just a prank, although she denies this vehemently.
  2. Maybe she was in a half-dream state and was actually subconsciously listening in on the conversation from upstairs.
  3. Maybe her parents’ predisposition towards mysticism and the occult made them more open to accepting this phenomenon.
  4. Maybe their confirmation bias, pareidolia, or Barnum Effect led them to think her accounts of the conversations were more accurate than they truly were?
  5. Maybe something significant happened in their lives where it would have been a safe bet to assume they had been discussing it.
  6. Along those same lines, surely they discussed many things, and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to correctly guess one of the night’s conversations.
  7. Maybe this never actually happened but you heard about it and adopted the memory as your own?

So again, what is more likely?

  • A: My friend has the rare supernatural ability of clairvoyance and can thus obtain information at a distance.
  • B: Any of the above (or even other possible explanations).

Remember that if you choose option A that you will also have to reconcile many other questions. For example, if this were possible, why wouldn’t the military be utilizing this phenomenon to spy? Or if it is, is it then one of the most successful conspiracy theories of all time?

Surely since any individual could stumble on to it by chance that the method would have gotten out by now. Over the course of thousands of years and billions of lives, not one person has once figured this out, replicated it in a scientific study, and then publicized it?

And if it’s just extremely rare and hard to perform, then what gives you the ability to perform it? There has never before been any documented case of some sort of gene giving rise to paranormal ability, so is it not quite unlikely that you are the first? Also, is it not strange that this ability only manifests under times of hallucination? That is, during sleep deprivation and symptoms sounding suspiciously similar to sleep paralysis, which has been known to cause such hallucinatory phenomena?

It is similar to how when you take psychedelic drugs such as LSD, DMT, or mushrooms, that you have out of body experiences. However, we know going in that this is not real and is just part of the hallucination. Is it not then more likely that other out of body experiences are also hallucinations and not real? There are multiple routes to the same destination, and one not need consume psychedelics to achieve such states. Indeed, there are reports of sleep deprivation, intense meditation, and even breathing bringing about such outcomes. Yes, breathing.

At this point I feel I’m being a bit mean. After all, isn’t all this still possible? Yes, it may be unlikely, but it could be true, no?

And to this, I say yes, it could be true. However, this is not how you apply epistemology in any other parts of your life, so why here? For example, let’s say that an event occurred that had two possible explanations, one with a 99.9% chance probability and the other with a 0.1% chance probability. Would you not side with the former rather than the latter?

Another example: there could be an invisible dragon in your garage. However, it is impossible to detect the dragon and it does not interact with the real world in any way. Of course you would not believe in the dragon, because although it is possible that it exists, the claim is not falsifiable and it is extremely unlikely to be true. In all other aspects of life we base our beliefs on the most probable answers, so we should be virtuous and continue that trend here.

Probability matters. Consider that James Randi has offered one million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate supernatural ability. The offer ran for 50 years and although over a thousand people entered, not one person was successful in demonstrating their paranormal ability. If the first 1000 supernatural claims were without merit, is it not hubris to presume your personal 1001st claim will ring true?

Similarly with conspiracy theorists, I think one of the main reasons why people go against their better judgement and hold these beliefs are for two reasons. First, they are intoxicating-you are in the know about this forbidden, taboo knowledge. The world is not nearly as boring as you once suspected and it opens up an entire new world of possibilities.

Second, because it feels real to you. If you saw people’s faces as dragons, then even if you knew it was logically irrational, it’s kind of hard to ignore the dangerous fire-breathing dragon right in front of your face. Similarly with schizophrenia, you can know that it’s not real and that in all probability that your brain is just playing tricks on you and everyone else is normal, but when it’s happening to you it’s kind of hard to ignore how real the voice telling you how worthless you are sounds. If some stranger were making these claims, you’d rightly be much more skeptical, but when it’s all happening within your own head, it’s much harder to discount.

This was a bit of a long post, so I guess I’ll end with some key takeaways.

  • Mental models of how we think the world should be often trump how the world actually is.
  • Confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are scary, because they can lead us to invalid beliefs and cause us to become even deeper rooted in falsehoods.
  • Likewise, pride can be dangerous, for we invent alternate realities rather than concede that our minds may be fallible.
  • Occam’s razor is a decent heuristic for evaluating the merits of supernatural claims.
  • Memories can be surprisingly unreliable despite overwhelming confidence.
  • The importance of probability assessment in weighing your beliefs.
  • To evade the enticement and draw of holding extraordinary beliefs, and to instead be consistent in your epistemic virtue.
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