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The origin of the spatial receptive fields of hippocampal place cells has not been established. A hippocampal CA1 pyramidal cell receives thousands of synaptic inputs, mostly from other spatially tuned neurons; however, how the postsynaptic neuron’s cellular properties determine the response to these inputs during behavior is unknown. We discovered that, contrary to expectations from basic models of place cells and neuronal integration, a small, spatially uniform depolarization of the spatially untuned somatic membrane potential of a silent cell leads to the sudden and reversible emergence of a spatially tuned subthreshold response and place-field spiking. Such gating of inputs by postsynaptic neuronal excitability reveals a cellular mechanism for receptive field origin and may be critical for the formation of hippocampal memory representations.