T cells constantly sample their environment using receptors (TCR) that possess both a germline-encoded low affinity for major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules and a highly diverse set of CDR3 regions contributing to a range of affinities for specific peptides bound to these MHC molecules. The decision of a T cell "to sense and to respond" with proliferation and effector activity rather than "to sense, live on, but not respond" is dependent on TCR interaction with a low number of specific foreign peptide:MHC molecule complexes recognized simultaneously with abundant self peptide-containing complexes. Interaction with self-complexes alone, on the other hand, generates a signal for survival without a full activation response. Current models for how this distinction is achieved are largely based on translating differences in receptor affinity for foreign versus self ligands into intracellular signals that differ in quality, intensity, and/or duration. A variety of rate-dependent mechanisms involving assembly of molecular oligomers and enzymatic modification of proteins underlie this differential signaling. Recent advances have been made in measuring TCR:ligand interactions, in understanding the biochemical origin of distinct proximal and distal signaling events resulting from TCR binding to various ligands, and in appreciating the role of feedback pathways. This new information can be synthesized into a model of how self and foreign ligand recognition each evoke the proper responses from T cells, how these two classes of signaling events interact, and how pathologic responses may arise as a result of the underlying properties of the system. The principles of signal spreading and stochastic resonance incorporated into this model reveal a striking similarity in mechanisms of decision-making among T cells, neurons, and bacteria.