We have identified large-scale patterns of electrical activity in circuits that occur in response to stimulation of peripheral receptors. Our focus was on primary (S1) vibrissal cortex of anesthetized rat, and we used optical techniques in conjunction with voltage-sensitive dyes to measure depolarization of the upper layers of cortex. Displacement of one vibrissa produced a field of activity that extends over very many cortical columns in S1. There are multiple, focal maxima within this field. A global maximum is located near the center of the field of activity, and, as determined electrically and histologically, this site maps to the cortical column appropriate for the deflected vibrissa. The amplitude of this component attains a steady-state value under continuous stimulation. Additional temporal characteristics are revealed by the response to a single displacement; the signal was triphasic and began with a prompt depolarization that was followed by a transient phase of inhibition and a final phase of long-lasting depolarization. The somatotopy of the other, satellite maxima in the field of activity were established through the reconstruction of the fields of activity produced by individual stimulation of other vibrissae. Local maxima for one vibrissa were seen to overlie the global maximum found for stimulation of nearest- and next-nearest-neighbor vibrissae. In contrast to the amplitude of the global maxima, the amplitude associated with the local maxima was not maintained with either continuous or infrequent but repetitive stimulation. Finally, the field of activity induced by alternate deflection of two neighboring vibrissae was suppressed in amplitude in comparison to the summed amplitudes of the signals elicited by deflection of each vibrissa alone. We suggest that these patterns of activity are a manifestation of the dynamic interaction among neighboring cortical columns.