Are you on team Berenstein or Berenstain? GIF: First Time Books/Yahoo Health)
When things get a little too real in this grown-up world we live in, sometimes it’s nice to reminisce about a simpler time — childhood. You know, when watching Mr. Rogers was part of your morning routine, you shopped for a new Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper every August, and scoring a magic mushroom power-up turned you into Super Mario.
But we started to question every (supposedly concrete) childhood memory we’ve ever had when the Berenstain Bears controversy hit the Internet (particularly, Reddit). If you’re not familiar, Vice summed it all up nicely here in this piece — essentially, there’s a huge group of people out there who vividly recall the popular children’s book series to be spelled “Berenstein,” with an E in place of the A. (The characters were in fact named after the authors, Stan and Jan Berenstain.)
Some people, including the hip-hop recording artist and producer El-P whose tweets helped to spark the whole controversy, suggested that it was proof of a parallel dimension or paradoxical timeline. Others pointed to a conspiracy theory.
But what’s really at play here? Could there be a glitch in the matrix, or, more likely, is Berenstein vs. Berenstain evidence of collective memory malfunction?
Why Your Memory Can Crash and Burn
Human memory is not like an Instagram feed, where digital images and recordings are pristinely preserved. Rather, recollections are recreated on the fly, based on bits and pieces of information that our brain pulls from various sources and combines to form a cohesive narrative. As such, the process is inherently prone to inaccuracies. “In fact, recent evidence indicates that every time a memory is retrieved, it becomes labile and is subject to change and distortion,” says James Lampinen, professor and associate chair in the department of psychological science at the University of Arkansas.
There are two broad categories of false memories: internally generated and externally influenced. “Some false memories are based on your own past experiences and associations,” Lampinen tells Yahoo Health. “Let’s say you typically leave your car keys on the nightstand. When looking for them in the morning, you might have a distinct memory that you put them on your nightstand, when in fact you left them on your kitchen table.”
Another possibility is “memory conjunction error,” where people combine elements from different events that actually happened. “Maybe you go to the food court at the local mall and Tommy gets a burger and Sally gets a slice of pizza,” Lampinen says. “Later, you might mistakenly remember Tommy eating the pizza and Sally the burger.”
False memories can also be created by external suggestions, in what scientists have dubbed “the misinformation effect.”
“Imagine that while you are out shopping a band of hoodlums breaks the display case at a jewelry store and makes off with $10,000 in jewelry,” Lampinen says. “Later on, you read a news story about the jewelry theft that says the hoodlums were armed. When you’re interviewed by the police, you might remember with absolute conviction having seen a gun, when in fact you never did.”
The 101 on Collective False Memory
What makes the Berenstain Bears case so intriguing is that it’s not just a few individuals who got the book title wrong — there’s a whole faction out there who all share the same fictitious memory. But there are other memories that trip us up, too: Many people recall eating “Jiffy” peanut butter as a kid, even though it doesn’t exist. (There’s Jif and Skippy, but no Jiffy.) In a phenomenon colloquially dubbed the Mandela Effect, a sizeable swath of the population has vivid memories of Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s. They were flummoxed when he actually passed away in 2013.
Still, it’s cognitive psychology at play, not an indication of an alternate reality, says Christopher Chabris, professor of psychology at Union College and coauthor of The Invisible Gorilla. “We don’t need science fiction to understand what’s happening, just an appreciation of how memory works,” he tells Yahoo Health.
“We each have our own individual experiences, but also share a number of collective experiences,” Lampinen adds. “With the Berenstain Bears, people have a lot of familiarity with surnames that end in ‘stein,’ and less familiarity with those ending in 'stain.'”
In a classic memory study, people were asked to read a Native American folktale that included names and terms that were unfamiliar to the readers. When researchers asked participants to retell the story, they changed it into a more ordinary narrative. “The same thing is probably happening in this case: Berenstein is a more common name than Berenstain, making it likely that people will transform their memory to the more conventional version,” Lampinen explains.
He points out that in a list of the 12,000 most common surnames in the U.S., 22 include “stein” as a component (including Berenstein). By comparison, “stain” occurs only once — and it’s not Berenstain. “Moreover, the two names are phonetically similar, so it is not surprising that Berenstain would activate people’s prior associations with names that end in 'stein,’” Lampinen adds.
It’s also possible that people recorded the name incorrectly in the first place. “Perception is constructive — your brain often makes good guesses to match information that is already stored in your mind, and as a result you’re prone to mistakes,” Chabris says. “Since Berenstain is an unusual name, people may have read it wrong initially and cognitively encoded the misspelled version.”
Another development at work is called “the social contagion of memory”: “The more we hear others referring to the Berenstein Bears, the more it strengthens our distorted memory,“ Lampinen says. The Internet, of course, only enhances this. “If you type Berenstein Bears into Google and find a whole page of people who agree with you about the spelling, it becomes a larger mutually reinforcing phenomenon,” Chabris explains. “A community forms around these accidental recollections, bolstering your convictions.”
On the other hand, the phony death of Nelson Mandela can’t be chalked up to something as simple as misspelling. “It likely reflects a memory conjunction error,” Lampinen says. “People remember Nelson Mandela as having been in prison. They remember his passing. They may not remember other information about him. So when they think about his life as a whole, they put together those two bits that they do recall and form a memory of him as having died in prison.”
Hearing about Mandela’s death could have also triggered preexisting inferences. We regularly see funerals for world leaders on the news, and the images tend to be generic, from the flag-draped coffins to the speeches by heads of state to the teary-eyed onlookers. “Viewing the real funeral sets off the retrieval of memories of other funerals in the past, and we attribute it to the same event,” Chabris explains. “Plus, it’s logical to believe that somebody old, like Mandela, had already died anyway.”
Give Yourself a Reality Check
Whether you’re a Berenstein devotee, swear that chartreuse is a shade of purple rather than yellow-green, or distinctly recall traveling to California with a friend who has zero recollection of the trip, you may be wondering whether it’s possible to pull up the true memory.
Chances are slim, according to Chabris. “Retrieving a memory isn’t like following a treasure map, where if you dig into your brain in the exact right spot you’ll find the ‘real’ experience,” he says. “Events are recorded in our minds in a complex way, with each element — location, time, taste, smell, source, etc. — stored in a separate subset. When you recall an incident, your brain draws information from many different locations and bundles it together to form a cohesive memory.” Facts can easily get swapped in and out in the process, not to mention that you may have originally misrecorded the event.
But Lampenin suggests trying a strategy called “memory editing,” where you double-check your story for consistency. “If you mistakenly remember Tommy having pizza when he really had the hamburger, then you might be able to recognize your mistake by searching for possible disconfirming details,” he says. Do you recall him tearing open a ketchup packet? Then it probably wasn’t pizza.
What can help in the future is to recognize that, as confident of their accuracy as you may feel, your recollections aren’t set in stone. “We assume that our flashbacks are true because they can pop into our head so readily,” Chabris says. “But so much of memory is based on inference and assumption. It’s much more fragile than we realize.”
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