There is a good deal of evidence that in the rodent, an internal model of the external world is encoded by hippocampal pyramidal cells, called 'place cells'. During free exploration, the activity of place cells is higher within a small part of the space, called the firing field, and virtually silent elsewhere. We have previously shown that the spiking activity during passes through the firing field is characterized not only by the high firing rate, but also by its very high variability ('overdispersion'). This overdispersion indicates that place cells carry information in addition to position. Here we demonstrate by simulations of an integrate-and-fire neuronal model that while a rat is foraging in an open space this additional information may arise from a process that alternatingly modulates the inputs to place cells by about 10% with a mean period of about 1 s. We propose that the overdispersion reflects switches of the rats attention between different spatial reference frames of the environment. This predicts that the overdispersion will not be observed in rats that use only room-based cues for navigation. We show that while place cell firing is overdispersed in rats during foraging in an open arena, the firing is less overdispersed during the same behavior in the same environment, when the rats have been trained to use only room-based and not arena-based cues to navigate.