Near-infrared spectroscopy is discussed from the viewpoint of human higher-order brain function analysis. Pioneering work in this field is reviewed; then we describe our concept of noninvasive trans-cranial dynamic optical topography and its instrumentation. Also, the validity of its functional images is assessed from both physical and physiological viewpoints. After confirming the validity of this method, we have applied it to a wide variety of fields such as clinical medicine, cognitive science, and linguistics in collaboration with researchers at several other institutes. Further application possibilities and the future of trans-cranial dynamic optical topography are also discussed. © 1999 Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers.