What are the building blocks of human imagination?

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From MIT Technology Review:

Here’s a curious experiment. Take some white noise and use it to produce a set of images that are essentially random arrangements of different coloured blocks. Show these images to a number of people and ask whether any of the images remind them of, say, a car.

Most of the time, these random images will appear to people as, well, random.  But every now and again somebody will say that an image does remind them of a car. Set this image aside. And repeat.

After assessing, say, 100,000 images in this way, you’ll end up with a set of essentially random pictures that remind people of cars. Take the average of these and you will find something interesting. The resulting image does indeed look like a blurry car, not a specific kind of car but a very general template of one.

“Although our dataset consists of only white noise, a car emerges,” say Carl Vondrick and pals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who carried out the research.

Today, these guys say that this process extracts the visual template that the human brain uses to distinguish objects such as cars from not-cars. And because this process is based on noise and imagination alone, Vondrick and co say it provides a unique insight into the nature of human imagination.

Read the full story here. The research was also covered on Vice's Motherboard blog.