Memory, the Mandela Effect, and Pterodactyls of the Mind

6 min read
Matthew Sharps

Source: Matthew Sharps

In previous posts on The Forensic View, we have seen that details in eyewitness accounts can be changed inadvertently through normal psychological processes. But can entire eyewitness stories change in the same way?

Consider the Mandela effect.

Before becoming South Africa’s President, Nelson Mandela was an anti-apartheid activist. He was imprisoned through the 1980s, yet many people report clear memories of his death at that time. This anomaly has been widely publicized, and this “Mandela effect” extended to such false memories as inaccurate details of movies and advertisements.

Minor memory glitches are, of course, well-known to eyewitness psychologists, but the story of Mandela’s premature death seemed so important and so compelling that the Internet is still awash with the idea that he actually died in the 1980s and that somehow his death generated parallel realities.

But would a single death, no matter how important, really have cosmic consequences for time and space? What is actually going on here?

As a student in the 1980s, I remember a rumor that Mandela had died in prison. Some of my fellow students were very invested in this rumor; when I pointed out the fact that Mandela was still alive, I was vociferously disbelieved. So, I showed my fellow students a contemporary issue of a news magazine, which held a story concerning Mandela’s ongoing imprisonment rather than his death.

Their reactions were interesting. Several became enraged at my media-supported heresy. At least one insisted that Mandela really was dead anyway. It was also suggested that the news magazine was in the pay of some vast anti-Mandela conspiracy. Such ideas continued to circulate for some time.

Although other factors may, of course, have contributed to the Mandela effect, it would appear that this false rumor took wing many years later to result in false memories of the entire story, requiring, many years later, far-fetched tales of the warping of time and space in justification.

But are there other examples of entire stories being detached by “witnesses” from their origins, becoming reconfigured in time and space? I recently made the acquaintance of Ranger Susan Barnes of the Texas State Park system, who has made a serious study of the venerable Mexican tale of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman. There are several versions of this truly terrifying tale of murder and suicide, some of which may have European roots as well, but the more common Mexican versions typically have La Llorona, after some horrific intrafamilial violence, drowning herself in a local river and becoming an eternal and vengeful spirit. The river, in these versions, is very clearly in Mexico.

Yet Ranger Barnes has traced this tale as far north as Kansas. It’s not merely that there are people in Kansas who know this venerable story; Ranger Barnes has encountered Kansas residents who are quite certain that the entire tragedy actually happened in Kansas and that La Llorona drowned in a local creek or pond! This important mythological tale has not only entered the realm of fully believed reality, just like the supposed premature death of Nelson Mandela; the entire story has moved from a Mexican river to a prairie creek somewhere near Wichita.

Still, if you remove the supernatural and cultural elements of the story, suicidal drownings do happen, and they certainly may have happened in Kansas. The contextual migration of stories like those of an activist’s death or even an aquatic suicide may seem relatively prosaic to some.

But then there are the pterodactyls of Arizona.

Pterodactyls and their relatives were flying reptiles contemporaneous with the dinosaurs. None of them survived the Cretaceous/Tertiary extinction some 66 million years ago. Different kinds ranged in size from under a foot to well over 30 feet across.

But none ever approached the 160-foot wingspan of the monster reported in 1890 in the Tombstone Epitaph, supposedly shot down and measured by two ranchers (Weatherly, 2019).

One hundred and sixty feet. That’s not a pterodactyl. That’s a B-52.

Alas, there were no follow-ups in the Epitaph, but there are several wonderful sepia-toned photographs floating around that appear to show a group of men with 19th-century hunting clothes and contemporaneous firearms posing with their “trophy,” a fairly convincing dead pterodactyl with a wingspan of perhaps 20 feet.

Many “eyewitnesses” remember this as the original photograph in the Epitaph, although there was no photograph in the Epitaph. Others remember having seen it in an encyclopedia, and they believe firmly in the pterodactyl depicted. Some of them are still tramping through the desert, looking for another one.

Now, I also remember seeing versions of this photograph in my long-ago childhood in the American West, but not in any legitimate source. In souvenir shops of the day, you could find them in the “Tall Tales” postcard rack, right up there with the Jackalopes and the Ghost Riders in the Sky.

People don’t tell many tall tales anymore; instead, they believe in desert pterodactyls the size of strategic bombers. Even very weird stories show the kind of contextual mobility we saw with Mandela and La Llorona; it’s not surprising that more prosaic tales do so in the criminal justice system as well.

Consider a burglary case on which I consulted some years ago. The witness clearly remembered seeing the burglar under a bright house light, with full moonlight and a clear view. The entire story was coherent and credible, and the suspect was convicted.

However, there was no visible moon that night, the house light bulb was broken, and her view was obscured by a solid fence taller than she was. It was actually pitch dark, but the entire story changed in the witness’s mind to make the logical sense she needed to believe it herself.

It’s not only details; entire accounts, from the prosaic to the bizarre, change and migrate in the mind. This is a psychological reality of enormous importance to our understanding of eyewitness memory in the criminal justice system and in our everyday lives.

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