In this Paton Lecture I have tried to trace the key experiments that have developed ideas on how the brain regulates the cardiovascular system. It is a personal view and inevitably, owing to constraints on space and time, I have not been able to cover areas such as the nucleus tractus solitarius and cardiac vagal neurones, although I acknowledge that some may consider the story is incomplete without them. Starting with the crucial discovery of vasomotor nerves and ‘vasomotor tone’, the patterns of activity in sympathetic nerves which led to the important idea of central oscillating networks of neurones are described. I discuss how this knowledge has informed current controversies on the origin of vasomotor activity in presympathetic neurones in the ventral medulla, which identify intrinsic pacemaker activity or synaptic input from multiple oscillators as prime mechanisms. I present an emerging view that the role of other regions of the brain, in particular supramedullary sites, has been underplayed. These regions are pivotal for the non-uniform distribution of cardiac output that is unique to each reflex and behavioural state. I discuss the most recent evidence for ‘central command’ neurones that offers a plausible explanation for how these patterns of sympathetic activity are achieved. Finally, I stress the importance of these current ideas to the understanding of pathological changes in sympathetic activity in cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension or congestive heart failure.