Computational models have become an integral part of basic neuroscience and have facilitated some of the major advances in the field. More recently, such models have also been applied to the understanding of disruptions in brain function. In this review, using examples and a simple analogy, we discuss the potential for computational models to inform our understanding of brain function and dysfunction. We argue that they may provide, in unprecedented detail, an understanding of the neurobiological and mental basis of brain disorders and that such insights will be key to progress in diagnosis and treatment. However, there are also potential problems attending this approach. We highlight these and identify simple principles that should always govern the use of computational models in clinical neuroscience, noting especially the importance of a clear specification of a model’s purpose and of the mapping between mathematical concepts and reality.