NZ and the 'Mandela Effect': Meet the folks who remember New Zealand being in a different place
Do you know where New Zealand is? Chances are you live here, and have a pretty good idea - somewhere southeast of Australia, give or take a few thousand kilometres.
But what about Lebanon, could you draw that on a map? What about the proper positioning of Japan, Korea, and China? Could you summon that all from memory?
A month or so ago I found a large community of people online who strongly remember New Zealand to be in a very different place to where it is. Some remember it being northeast of Australia, instead of southeast. Some remember New Zealand in essentially the same place, but Australia way further south. Some have it even further off.
"I remember it west of Australia," says Julie of California, whom I've agreed to not identify by last name.
"Sixteen years ago I bought a globe. I was actually thinking about Australia and New Zealand and how I didn't know much about either, so I thought I should really know where they are."
"So I looked at my globe and saw it as a big landmass west of Australia. I thought 'this is a good way to remember it, it seems exotic to me because it is further away from the United States, further west.'"
Julie, who is 52, is a strong believer in the "Mandela Effect". The position of New Zealand is not the only thing she remembers differently. But let's back up.
WHAT IS THE MANDELA EFFECT?
The "Mandela Effect" is an internet name for something that has probably happened to you, a kind of news-based deja vu. It's named for people who, upon the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013, were immediately confused - because they remembered him dying in the late 1980s. These people got online, and realised there were thousands of others of people who remembered the exact same thing.
Soon, they started cataloguing other things they remember differently.
Like, wasn't Mother Teresa already canonised back in the 90s? Didn't it used to be spelled "definately" not "definitely"? Was it Interview with a Vampire before it was Interview with the Vampire? And of most interest to us down here in Aotearoa: didn't New Zealand used to be in a different place?
There are a few different theories bandied around the community as to why so many people remember things so differently, but the dominant one concerns alternate dimensions, or "timestreams".
Basically, it holds that large groups of people used to live in slightly different realities where Australia was south of New Zealand and the USA was made up of 51 states. But then, at some point in the last decade or so, those realities merged with our current timestream, changing all the dictionaries and maps to match the new reality.
If you take a look through the Mandela Effect website and subreddit, you will find hundreds of people who have a different idea of where New Zealand is. You'll probably find something you remember differently too.
For me, it's the "Berenstain Bears". I remember it quite well as the "Berenstein Bears" - with an "e".
I'm willing to accept that I'm just bad at spelling, but the experience of realising that the scaffolding of your reality is slightly off is uniquely destabilising. If you've remembered this thing wrong, what else about your world is completely unreal?
'I CAN UNDERSTAND PEOPLE WANTING REALITY TO BE REALLY STABLE'
"I spent last night on the verge of an anxiety attack," writes Reddit user Bambooz_led. "I'm well educated. I'm well travelled, I've lived in multiple countries (including in Asia). I have a good job and a solid middle class existence and I pride myself in being emotionally stable and consistently rational."
"I just realised that I do not recognise Australia and New Zealand. At all."
They aren't alone.
The "old world" remembered by many and the current world, layered.
"I'm literally sitting here in tears feeling like I'm about to have a panic attack. My entire understanding of everything has been shaken to the core," writes Reddit user dontevenknowanymore_.
"When this all came to my attention a couple days ago I go over to my sister's room and look for this globe we've had for years. First place I look is for New Zealand northeast area of Australia... lo and behold, New Zealand is now southeast of Australia in the middle of nowhere."
"At that point it felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. I won the geography award in grade school and have a plaque that my parents still have on display, and I'm willing to scan it to prove it. Geography is something I've always had a keen awareness of."
Julie thinks about the Mandela Effect a lot. But it doesn't scare her like it does others.
"It's definitely surreal. I can never put it away, it's always in the back of my mind as I go about my day. But I guess I'm comfortable with ambiguity. It kind of makes for a sense of wonder," Julie says.
"I can understand people wanting reality to be really stable. I think it could make some people nervous because if this was really accepted it could really change society a lot. I mean what if you committed a crime and you remembered not doing it. it brings up all kinds of weird possibilities."
A popular Mandela Effect concerns whether Darth Vader says "Luke, I am your father" or "No, I am your father" in The Empire Strikes Back. It's the second one.
"We think of memories as our identity," says Maryanne Garry, a psychology professor at Victoria University who specialises in memory. "Nobody likes to be challenged about who they are."
After weeks of searching, I'm yet to find a single New Zealander who seriously misremembers New Zealand's place in the world. (One believer suspects us locals have a "mental block" are in "disbelief" because of the magnitude of our country's shift.)
This is unsurprising. We pay a lot more attention to our presence (or omission) from world maps down here. I'm fairly sure we are all in this one reality together, and that this confusion can be explained by a combination of bad maps and false memories.
False memories are surprisingly common.
"Typically, all memories are reconstructed. So it just depends what they're being constructed from — truth, fiction, a mix," Garry says.
How common? Memories are hard to study, but a large amount of work has been done on 'flash-bulb memories' - large events in a person's life that they profess to remember long-term. These might be personal (your engagement) or public (the 2011 earthquake). What defines them is the degree of confidence we all have in them: a lot of people who were conscious at the time say they remember exactly where they were when they heard about 9/11, Obama's election, and Pike River.
Contrails and puffs of smoke left in the sky from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January. 28, 1986. Credit: REID HUBER
The thing is, they probably don't. An Emory University study on the 1986 Challenger Disaster found that three years after the event participants held highly inaccurate memories about where they were when they heard the news, but they were extremely confident in the veracity of their memories.
It seems that the act of remembering something over and over again builds your confidence in that memory - even if you are more and more wrong every time.
Which, really, explains the Mandela Effect well. You may stumble upon the community with a few things misremembered, a few details out of place, then by virtue of reading about hundreds of others who agree with you, set that wrong memory in stone.
Suddenly you aren't thinking "oh I thought that was there," you're thinking "I definitely know that it was in a different place". Your ideology is rewarded and reinforced, as it is in any community.
Luckily, on the scale of things to remember wrong, the position of New Zealand isn't that much of a big deal. Most of these people aren't piloting planes. It's the other false memories - the ones about whether you supported the Iraq war, to pluck one example from the headlines - that we really need to be worried about.