It has long been recognised that statistical dependencies in neuronal activity need to be taken into account when decoding stimuli encoded in a neural population. Less studied, though equally pernicious, is the need to take account of dependencies between synaptic weights when decoding patterns previously encoded in an auto-associative memory. We show that activity-dependent learning generically produces such correlations, and failing to take them into account in the dynamics of memory retrieval leads to catastrophically poor recall. We derive optimal network dynamics for recall in the face of synaptic correlations caused by a range of synaptic plasticity rules. These dynamics involve well-studied circuit motifs, such as forms of feedback inhibition and experimentally observed dendritic nonlinearities. We therefore show how addressing the problem of synaptic correlations leads to a novel functional account of key biophysical features of the neural substrate.