The hippocampal formation is critical for the acquisition and consolidation of memories. When recorded in freely moving animals, hippocampal pyramidal neurons fire in a location-specific manner: they are "place" cells, comprising a hippocampal representation of the animal's environment. To explore the relationship between place cells and spatial memory, we recorded from mice in several behavioral contexts. We found that long-term stability of place cell firing fields correlates with the degree of attentional demands and that successful spatial task performance was associated with stable place fields. Furthermore, conditions that maximize place field stability greatly increase orientation to novel cues. This suggests that storage and retrieval of place cells is modulated by a top-down cognitive process resembling attention and that place cells are neural correlates of spatial memory. We propose a model whereby attention provides the requisite neuromodulatation to switch short-term homosynaptic plasticity to long-term heterosynaptic plasticity, and we implicate dopamine in this process.