The immune system adjusts its response to the context in which antigens, including self-antigens, are recognized. Recent observations support a conceptual framework for understanding how this may be achieved at the cellular and cell-population levels. At both levels, 'perturbations' elicit competition between excitation and de-excitation, resulting either in adaptation or in various responses. The responsiveness of individual cells is dynamically tuned, reflecting their recent experience. The tuning of T-cell activation thresholds by self-ligands facilitates positive selection and continuously regulates the level of autoreactivity in the periphery. Autoreactivity appears to be involved in regulation of the immune response, homeostasis, maintaining of the functional integrity of naïve and memory cells, and in other physiological functions.