Neural function depends on maintaining cellular membrane potentials as the basis for electrical signaling. Yet in mammals and insects, neuronal and glial membrane potentials can reversibly depolarize to zero, shutting down neural function by the process of spreading depolarization (SD) that collapses the ion gradients across membranes. SD is not evident in all metazoan taxa with centralized nervous systems. We consider the occurrence and similarities of SD in different animals and suggest that it is an emergent property of nervous systems that have evolved to control complex behaviours requiring energetically expensive, rapid information processing in a tightly regulated extracellular environment. Whether SD is beneficial or not in mammals remains an open question. However, in insects it is associated with the response to harsh environments and may provide an energetic advantage that improves the chances of survival. The remarkable similarity of SD in diverse taxa supports a model systems approach to understanding the mechanistic underpinning of human neuropathology associated with migraine, stroke and traumatic brain injury.