We propose and empirically support a parsimonious account of intrinsic, brain-wide spatiotemporal organization arising from traveling waves linked to arousal. We hypothesize that these waves are the predominant physiological process reflected in spontaneous functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) signal fluctuations. The correlation structure ("functional connectivity") of these fluctuations recapitulates the large-scale functional organization of the brain. However, a unifying physiological account of this structure has so far been lacking. Here, using fMRI in humans, we show that ongoing arousal fluctuations are associated with global waves of activity that slowly propagate in parallel throughout the neocortex, thalamus, striatum, and cerebellum. We show that these waves can parsimoniously account for many features of spontaneous fMRI signal fluctuations, including topographically organized functional connectivity. Last, we demonstrate similar, cortex-wide propagation of neural activity measured with electrocorticography in macaques. These findings suggest that traveling waves spatiotemporally pattern brain-wide excitability in relation to arousal.