The lateral geniculate nucleus is the best understood thalamic relay and serves as a model for all thalamic relays. Only 5–10% of the input to geniculate relay cells derives from the retina, which is the driving input. The rest is modulatory and derives from local inhibitory inputs, descending inputs from layer 6 of the visual cortex, and ascending inputs from the brainstem. These modulatory inputs control many features of retinogeniculate transmission. One such feature is the response mode, burst or tonic, of relay cells, which relates to the attentional demands at the moment. This response mode depends on membrane potential, which is controlled effectively by the modulator inputs. The lateral geniculate nucleus is a first–order relay, because it relays subcortical (i.e. retinal) information to the cortex for the first time. By contrast, the other main thalamic relay of visual information, the pulvinar region, is largely a higher–order relay, since much of it relays information from layer 5 of one cortical area to another. All thalamic relays receive a layer–6 modulatory input from cortex, but higher–order relays in addition receive a layer–5 driver input. Corticocortical processing may involve these corticothalamocortical ‘re–entry’ routes to a far greater extent than previously appreciated. If so, the thalamus sits at an indispensable position for the modulation of messages involved in corticocortical processing.