Vertebrate spinal cord and brainstem central pattern generator (CPG) circuits share profound similarities with neocortical circuits. CPGs can produce meaningful functional output in the absence of sensory inputs. Neocortical circuits could be considered analogous to CPGs as they have rich spontaneous dynamics that, similar to CPGs, are powerfully modulated or engaged by sensory inputs, but can also generate output in their absence. We find compelling evidence for this argument at the anatomical, biophysical, developmental, dynamic and pathological levels of analysis. Although it is possible that cortical circuits are particularly plastic types of CPG ('learning CPGs'), we argue that present knowledge about CPGs is likely to foretell the basic principles of the organization and dynamic function of cortical circuits.