The central nervous system functions primarily to convert patterns of activity in sensory receptors into patterns of muscle activity that constitute appropriate behavior. At the anatomical level this requires two complementary processes: a set of genetically encoded rules for building the basic network of connections, and a mechanism for subsequently fine tuning these connections on the basis of experience. Identifying the locus and mechanism of these structural changes has long been among neurobiology's major objectives. Evidence has accumulated implicating a particular class of contacts, excitatory synapses made onto dendritic spines, as the sites where connective plasticity occurs. New developments in light microscopy allow changes in spine morphology to be directly visualized in living neurons and suggest that a common mechanism, based on dynamic actin filaments, is involved in both the formation of dendritic spines during development and their structural plasticity at mature synapses.