Cortical activity involves large populations of neurons, even when it is limited to functionally coherent areas. Electrophysiological recordings, on the other hand, involve comparatively small neural ensembles, even when modern-day techniques are used. Here we review results which have started to fill the gap between these two scales of inquiry, by shedding light on the statistical distributions of activity in large populations of cells. We put our main focus on data recorded in awake animals that perform simple decision-making tasks and consider statistical distributions of activity throughout cortex, across sensory, associative, and motor areas. We transversally review the complexity of these distributions, from distributions of firing rates and metrics of spike-train structure, through distributions of tuning to stimuli or actions and of choice signals, and finally the dynamical evolution of neural population activity and the distributions of (pairwise) neural interactions. This approach reveals shared patterns of statistical organization across cortex, including: (i) long-tailed distributions of activity, where quasi-silence seems to be the rule for a majority of neurons; that are barely distinguishable between spontaneous and active states; (ii) distributions of tuning parameters for sensory (and motor) variables, which show an extensive extrapolation and fragmentation of their representations in the periphery; and (iii) population-wide dynamics that reveal rotations of internal representations over time, whose traces can be found both in stimulus-driven and internally generated activity. We discuss how these insights are leading us away from the notion of discrete classes of cells, and are acting as powerful constraints on theories and models of cortical organization and population coding. © 2012 Elsevier Ltd.