Although several decades of studies have detailed peripheral and ascending nociceptive pathways to the thalamus and cerebral cortex, pain is a symptom that has remained difficult to characterize anatomically and physiologically. Positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) have recently demonstrated a number of cerebral and brain stem loci responding to cutaneous noxious stimuli. However, intersubject variability, both in the frequency and increased or decreased intensity of the responses, has caused uncertainty as to their significance. Nevertheless, the large number of available imaging studies have shown that many areas with recognized functions are frequently affected by painful stimuli. With this evidence and recent developments in tracing central nervous system connections between areas responding to noxious stimuli, it is possible to identify nociceptive pathways that are within, or contribute to, afferent spinothalamo-cortical sensory and efferent skeletomotor and autonomic motor systems. In this study it is proposed that cortical and nuclear mechanisms for pain perception and response are hierarchically arranged with the prefrontal cortex at its highest level. Nevertheless, all components make particular contributions without which certain nociceptive failures can occur, as in pathological pain arising in some cases of nervous system injury.