Recent studies of the effects of stimulating the superior colliculus (SC) in rodents suggest that this structure mediates at least two classes of response to novel sensory stimuli. One class contains the familiar orienting response, together with movements resembling tracking or pursuit, and appears appropriate for undefined sensory 'events'. The second class contains defensive movements such as avoidance or flight, together with cardiovascular changes, that would be appropriate for a sudden emergency such as the appearance of a predator, or of an object on collision course. The two response systems appear to depend on separate output projections, and are probably subject to different sensory and forebrain influences. These findings (1) suggest an explanation for the complex anatomical organization of the SC, with multiple output pathways differentially accessed by a very wide variety of inputs, (2) emphasize the similarities between the SC and the optic tectum in non-mammalian species, and (3) suggest that the SC may be useful as a model for studying both the sensory control of defensive responses, and how intelligent decisions can be taken about relatively simple sensory inputs.