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Editor's Note: Manipulation

Movies are designed to manipulate. Images are carefully chosen to take us on a journey, shape opinions, and arouse emotions.

However, movies and moviemakers may be influencing the human brain in ways they never imagined. Children duck when an image flies at them across the screen and, as adults, we still flinch when something alarming pops up. In his book, Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, Professor Jeffrey Zacks of Washington University in St. Louis explores the various ways that movies affect us.

“What is going on? Your eyes and ears are telling you that something exciting is happening in front of you and your brain is preparing you to react. Of course, you know it’s just a movie. But large parts of your brain don’t process that distinction,” writes Zacks. “…Our brains didn’t evolve to watch movies: Movies evolved to take advantage of the brains we have. Our tendency to want to respond physically to them highlights this.”

But that’s just the beginning. According to Zacks, our eyes jump around to take in as much information as possible to form a picture of the world around us. These jumps, called saccades, have a rhythm—moving from a wide scan of the scene to a slower, longer exploration of individual details. Movies can determine where our eyes will move by manipulating the contrast, color, and location of these details. Because of this manipulation, when an audience is watching a movie, their eyes move in unison around the screen.

Audiences also blink in unison when watching movies—and that’s not an accident either. People blink right after a cut in the movie; a spot where the image abruptly changes due to editing. This occurs even when the cut is so fast that it is not registered by the brain. “In short, film editing alters pretty much everything about how we control our eyes: when they move, where they move, and when they blink. Thus, watching a film is a dance between the filmmakers—especially the editor—and your visual system,” writes Zacks.

Now that they know about these neurological tricks, moviemakers use this information to their advantage. For example, Zacks relates the story of director Jon Favreau, who used imaging of the eye movements of the audience to confirm that people were watching the stars of the movie, not the background. The background crowd was CGI and didn’t look great on close inspection. But if the audience wasn’t looking, Favreau didn’t have to spend money to fix the problem.

Those who kill movie magic by stealing films and other information are also learning new tricks and using them to their own financial advantage. In this month’s cover story, Assistant Editor Sara Mosqueda explores the entertainment industry’s struggle with protecting against all aspects of proprietary information loss, from digital leaks of fully produced films to the theft of a paper script.

As security professionals fight back, they too manipulate, using cybersecurity tactics and engineering to protect content from inception to distribution.