Discoveries over the past two decades demonstrate that regions distributed throughout the association cortex, often called the default network, are suppressed during tasks that demand external attention and are active during remembering, envisioning the future and making social inferences. This Review describes progress in understanding the organization and function of networks embedded within these association regions. Detailed high-resolution analyses of single individuals suggest that the default network is not a single network, as historically described, but instead comprises multiple interwoven networks. The multiple networks share a common organizational motif (also evident in marmoset and macaque anatomical circuits) that might support a general class of processing function dependent on internally constructed rather than externally constrained representations, with each separate interwoven network specialized for a distinct processing domain. Direct neuronal recordings in humans and monkeys reveal evidence for competitive relationships between the internally and externally oriented networks. Findings from rodent studies suggest that the thalamus might be essential to controlling which networks are engaged through specialized thalamic reticular neurons, including antagonistic subpopulations. These association networks (and presumably thalamocortical circuits) are expanded in humans and might be particularly vulnerable to dysregulation implicated in mental illness.