One of the most important goals of neuroscience is to establish precise structure–function relationships in the brain. Since the 19th century, a major scientific endeavour has been to associate structurally distinct cortical regions with specific cognitive functions. This was traditionally accomplished by correlating microstructurally defined areas with lesion sites found in patients with specific neuropsychological symptoms. Modern neuroimaging techniques with high spatial resolution have promised an alternative approach, enabling non-invasive measurements of regionally specific changes of brain activity that are correlated with certain components of a cognitive process. Reviewing classic approaches towards brain structure–function relationships that are based on correlational approaches, this article argues that these approaches are not sufficient to provide an understanding of the operational principles of a dynamic system such as the brain but must be complemented by models based on general system theory. These models reflect the connectional structure of the system under investigation and emphasize context-dependent couplings between the system elements in terms of effective connectivity. The usefulness of system models whose parameters are fitted to measured functional imaging data for testing hypotheses about structure–function relationships in the brain and their potential for clinical applications is demonstrated by several empirical examples.