Noise--random disturbances of signals--poses a fundamental problem for information processing and affects all aspects of nervous-system function. However, the nature, amount and impact of noise in the nervous system have only recently been addressed in a quantitative manner. Experimental and computational methods have shown that multiple noise sources contribute to cellular and behavioural trial-to-trial variability. We review the sources of noise in the nervous system, from the molecular to the behavioural level, and show how noise contributes to trial-to-trial variability. We highlight how noise affects neuronal networks and the principles the nervous system applies to counter detrimental effects of noise, and briefly discuss noise's potential benefits.