Studies of the effects of peripheral and central lesions, perceptual learning and neurochemical modification on the sensory representations in cortex have had a dramatic effect in alerting neuroscientists and therapists to the reorganizational capacity of the adult brain. An intriguing aspect of some of these investigations, such as partial peripheral denervation, is the short-term expression of these changes. Indeed, in visual cortex, auditory cortex and somatosensory cortex loss of input from a region of the peripheral receptor epithelium (retinal, basilar and cutaneous, respectively) induces rapid expression of ectopic, or expanded, receptive fields of affected neurons and reorganization of topographic maps to fill in the representation of the denervated area. The extent of these changes can, in some cases, match the maximal extents demonstrated with chronic manipulations. The rapidity, and reversibility, of the effects rules out many possible explanations which involve synaptic plasticity and points to a capacity for representational plasticity being inherent in the circuitry of a topographic pathway. Consequently, topographic representations must be considered as manifestations of physiological interaction rather than as anatomical constructs. Interference with this interaction can produce an unmasking of previously inhibited responsiveness. Consideration of the nature of masking inhibition which is consistent with the precision and order of a topographic representation and which has a capacity for rapid plasticity requires, in addition to stimulus-driven inhibition, a source of tonic input from the periphery. Such input, acting locally to provide tonic inhibition, has been directly demonstrated in the somatosensory system and is consistent with results obtained in auditory and visual systems.