One of the most specific but also challenging properties of the brain is its topographic organization into distinct modules or cortical areas. In this paper, we first review the concept of topographic organization and its historical development. Next, we provide a critical discussion of the current definition of what constitutes a cortical area, why the concept has been so central to the field of neuroimaging and the challenges that arise from this view. A key aspect in this discussion is the issue of spatial scale and hierarchy in the brain. Focusing on in-vivo brain parcellation as a rapidly expanding field of research, we highlight potential limitations of the classical concept of cortical areas in the context of multi-modal parcellation and propose a revised interpretation of cortical areas building on the concept of neurobiological atoms that may be aggregated into larger units within and across modalities. We conclude by presenting an outlook on the implication of this revised concept for future mapping studies and raise some open questions in the context of brain parcellation.
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