Exploratory behaviors during learning determine what is studied and when, helping to optimize subsequent memory performance. To elucidate the cognitive and neural determinants of exploratory behaviors, we manipulated the control that human subjects had over the position of a moving window through which they studied objects and their locations. Our behavioral, neuropsychological and neuroimaging data indicate that volitional control benefits memory performance and is linked to a brain network that is centered on the hippocampus. Increases in correlated activity between the hippocampus and other areas were associated with specific aspects of memory, which suggests that volitional control optimizes interactions among specialized neural systems through the hippocampus. Memory is therefore an active process that is intrinsically linked to behavior. Furthermore, brain structures that are typically seen as passive participants in memory encoding (for example, the hippocampus) are actually part of an active network that controls behavior dynamically as it unfolds.