According to the dual origin hypothesis, the cerebral cortex of higher mammals evolved from two primordial brain structures, the amygdala and hippocampal formation. This developmental process defines the orderly principles of cortical connectivity and gives rise to functionally distinct ventral and dorsal systems within the cerebrum. This paper reviews the basic features of the dual origin theory. This model is then applied to understanding symptom production in a number of psychiatric illnesses, with particular reference to recent structural and functional imaging studies. In this paper I propose that psychiatric symptoms can be conceptualized as arising from abnormal processing within dorsal (time-space-motility) or ventral (meaning-motivation) systems, or from a disturbance in the functional interaction/balance between them. Within this framework, one can identify symptom-specific correlations that cross-traditional diagnostic boundaries, as well as potential mechanisms that may explain biologically valid diagnostic entities. Integrating evolutionary, connectional and functional bases across multiple species, the dual origin hypothesis offers a powerful neural systems model to help organize our understanding of psychiatric illness, therein suggesting novel approaches to diagnosis, prevention and treatment.