Activity in cortical networks is heterogeneous, sparse and often precisely timed. The functional significance of sparseness and precise spike timing is debated, but our understanding of the developmental and synaptic mechanisms that shape neuronal discharge patterns has improved. Evidence for highly specialized, selective and abstract cortical response properties is accumulating. Singe-cell stimulation experiments demonstrate a high sensitivity of cortical networks to the action potentials of some, but not all, single neurons. It is unclear how this sensitivity of cortical networks to small perturbations comes about and whether it is a generic property of cortex. The unforeseen sensitivity to cortical spikes puts serious constraints on the nature of neural coding schemes.