The ascending modulatory systems of the brain stem are powerful regulators of global brain state. Disturbances of these systems are implicated in several major neuropsychiatric disorders. Yet, how these systems interact with specific neural computations in the cerebral cortex to shape perception, cognition, and behavior remains poorly understood. Here, we probed into the effect of two such systems, the catecholaminergic (dopaminergic and noradrenergic) and cholinergic systems, on an important aspect of cortical computation: its intrinsic variability. To this end, we combined placebo-controlled pharmacological intervention in humans, recordings of cortical population activity using magnetoencephalography (MEG), and psychophysical measurements of the perception of ambiguous visual input. A low-dose catecholaminergic, but not cholinergic, manipulation altered the rate of spontaneous perceptual fluctuations as well as the temporal structure of “scale-free” population activity of large swaths of the visual and parietal cortices. Computational analyses indicate that both effects were consistent with an increase in excitatory relative to inhibitory activity in the cortical areas underlying visual perceptual inference. We propose that catecholamines regulate the variability of perception and cognition through dynamically changing the cortical excitation–inhibition ratio. The combined readout of fluctuations in perception and cortical activity we established here may prove useful as an efficient and easily accessible marker of altered cortical computation in neuropsychiatric disorders.