Neuroimaging and neurophysiological studies have shown that nociceptive stimuli elicit responses in an extensive cortical network including somatosensory, insular and cingulate areas, as well as frontal and parietal areas. This network, often referred to as the "pain matrix", is viewed as representing the activity by which the intensity and unpleasantness of the perception elicited by a nociceptive stimulus are represented. However, recent experiments have reported (i) that pain intensity can be dissociated from the magnitude of responses in the "pain matrix", (ii) that the responses in the "pain matrix" are strongly influenced by the context within which the nociceptive stimuli appear, and (iii) that non-nociceptive stimuli can elicit cortical responses with a spatial configuration similar to that of the "pain matrix". For these reasons, we propose an alternative view of the functional significance of this cortical network, in which it reflects a system involved in detecting, orienting attention towards, and reacting to the occurrence of salient sensory events. This cortical network might represent a basic mechanism through which significant events for the body's integrity are detected, regardless of the sensory channel through which these events are conveyed. This function would involve the construction of a multimodal cortical representation of the body and nearby space. Under the assumption that this network acts as a defensive system signaling potentially damaging threats for the body, emphasis is no longer on the quality of the sensation elicited by noxious stimuli but on the action prompted by the occurrence of potential threats. Copyright © 2010. Published by Elsevier Ltd.