Recently, the study of sensory cortex has focused on the context-dependent evolution of receptive fields and cortical maps over millisecond to second time-scales. This article reviews advances in our understanding of these processes in the rat primary somatosensory cortex (SI). Subthreshold input to individual rat SI neurons is extensive, spanning several vibrissae from the center of the receptive field, and arrives within 25 ms of vibrissa deflection. These large subthreshold receptive fields provide a broad substrate for rapid excitatory and inhibitory multi-vibrissa interactions. The 'whisking' behavior, an approximately 8 Hz ellipsoid movement of the vibrissae, introduces a context-dependent change in the pattern of vibrissa movement during tactile exploration. Stimulation of vibrissae over this frequency range modulates the pattern of activity in thalamic and cortical neurons, and, at the level of the cortical map, focuses the extent of the vibrissa representation relative to lower frequency stimulation (1 Hz). These findings suggest that one function of whisking is to reset cortical organization to improve tactile discrimination. Recent discoveries in primary visual cortex (VI) demonstrate parallel non-linearities in center-surround interactions in rat SI and VI, and provide a model for the rapid integration of multi-vibrissa input. The studies discussed in this article suggest that, despite its original conception as a uniquely segregated cortex, rat SI has a wide array of dynamic interactions, and that the study of this region will provide insight into the general mechanisms of cortical dynamics engaged by sensory systems.