Memory models often emphasize the need to encode novel patterns of neural activity imposed by sensory drive. Prior learning and innate architecture likely restrict neural plasticity, however. Here, we test how the incorporation of synthetic hippocampal signals is constrained by preexisting circuit dynamics. We optogenetically stimulated small groups of CA1 neurons as mice traversed a chosen segment of a linear track, mimicking the emergence of place fields. Stimulation induced persistent place field remapping in stimulated and non-stimulated neurons. The emergence of place fields could be predicted from sporadic firing in the new place field location and the temporal relationship to peer neurons before the optogenetic perturbation. Circuit modification was reflected by altered spike transmission between connected pyramidal cells and inhibitory interneurons, which persisted during post-experience sleep. We hypothesize that optogenetic perturbation unmasked sub-threshold place fields. Plasticity in recurrent/lateral inhibition may drive learning through the rapid association of existing states.