A new technique for understanding the organization of complex circuits in the vertebrate brain, scanning laser photostimulation, is described. This approach is based on the photolysis of a caged form of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. Computer-controlled photostimulation and whole cell recording in brain slices allow the construction of detailed maps of the position, strength, sign and number of inputs converging on a single postsynaptic neuron. Scanning laser photostimulation offers many advantages over current techniques: spatial resolution is superb, fibers of passage are not activated, and thousands of presynaptic locations can be stimulated. This review describes the technique of photostimulation, outlines the instrumentation, necessary to implement it, and discusses the interpretation of photostimulation-derived data. Several examples of applications, ranging from mapping circuits in the mammalian visual cortex to determining receptor distributions on single neurons are considered. Although still in its early stages, scanning laser photostimulation offers neuroscientists a powerful tool for determining the organization and function of local brain circuits.