Prioritized memory access explains planning and hippocampal replay.
To make decisions, animals must evaluate candidate choices by accessing memories of relevant experiences. Yet little is known about which experiences are considered or ignored during deliberation, which ultimately governs choice. We propose a normative theory predicting which memories should be accessed at each moment to optimize future decisions. Using nonlocal 'replay' of spatial locations in hippocampus as a window into memory access, we simulate a spatial navigation task in which an agent accesses memories of locations sequentially, ordered by utility: how much extra reward would be earned due to better choices. This prioritization balances two desiderata: the need to evaluate imminent choices versus the gain from propagating newly encountered information to preceding locations. Our theory offers a simple explanation for numerous findings about place cells; unifies seemingly disparate proposed functions of replay including planning, learning, and consolidation; and posits a mechanism whose dysfunction may underlie pathologies like rumination and craving.