Rapidly growing empirical evidence supports the hypothesis that the cortex operates near criticality. Although the confirmation of this hypothesis would mark a significant advance in fundamental understanding of cortical physiology, a natural question arises: What functional benefits are endowed to cortical circuits that operate at criticality? In this review, we first describe an introductory-level thought experiment to provide the reader with an intuitive understanding of criticality. Second, we discuss some practical approaches for investigating criticality. Finally, we review quantitative evidence that three functional properties of the cortex are optimized at criticality: 1) dynamic range, 2) information transmission, and 3) information capacity. We focus on recently reported experimental evidence and briefly discuss the theory and history of these ideas.