What Was Happening in Anthony Weiner’s Brain?

Inside Anthony Weiner's brain: how an electrochemical Itch led to his downfall.

Posted Jun 20, 2011

As the late historian Stephen Ambrose once explained on PBS's “News Hour” (when discussing the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal), “God created man with a penis and a brain and gave him only enough blood to run one at a time.”

All the news and talk shows delighted in speculating on what caused Anthony Weiner, a prominent, respected politician married to a beautiful young wife, to jeopardize his career, his relatively new marriage, and his approaching fatherhood. Some thought that he lacked a feeling component and needed this kind of illicit thrill-seeking in order to feel anything. Others suggested that he desperately needed to be admired and cited the fact that men are often attracted to politics so they can “feel like someone”; whereas women seek political (and corporate) power in order to change things. (For what it’s worth, female politicians are rarely involved in sordid affairs.)

Most commentators seemed to agree that Anthony Weiner suffers from sexual compulsion, even addiction, which seems likely, but we’ll leave all that conjecturing to psychologists. We’re interested in what was going on in his brain [One is so tempted to call it his little pea brain, which is so obviously not the case in every subject, save sex.]. While there’s no way to know what he was thinking—or if he was thinking—it is possible to understand how his brain contributed to his demise. Basically, the man had an electrochemical itch, one that he compulsively sought to scratch.

Neurotransmitters and Why They Matter

The brain consists of a network of neurons whose sole responsibility is to transmit signals from cell to cell. These signals are electrically transported within a single neuron and chemically transported between neurons. Neurotransmitters deliver the chemical component of the messages. There are many different kinds of neurotransmitters, and thus they are able to transmit gradients of information more easily than a simple electrical signal. Some neurotransmitters deliver fairly straightforward, simple messages.

Other neurotransmitters are more complex and have different functions in different brain areas, and these types of neurotransmitters are often called neuromodulators. Three of the more well-known neuromodulators are dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine. Dopamine and serotonin, in particular, are known to be key neurotransmitters in the regulation of pleasure, happiness, reward, and mood. Acetylcholine has been shown to be important in shifting from sleep to wakefulness and helps in sustaining attention and forming memories, especially in the hippocampus.

Even small changes in the number of neuromodulators that transmit signals from neuron to neuron can have a noticeable impact on your mood, disposition, and thought processes. For example, many addictive drugs overstimulate the dopamine system and lead to abnormal behaviors, both during the high, when the addictive drug causes dopamine levels to soar, and during the low, when the addictive drug has been cleared from your system and your natural dopamine levels have subsided.

Having too much or too little dopamine has also been implicated in a plethora of disorders from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to schizophrenia. Changes in the balance of serotonin in your brain can also lead to mood disorders, such as clinical depression, anxiety attacks, and phobias. Thus, having the right balance of neurotransmitters allows for your brain to hum along, operating at its full capacity with you in control.

So How Did Representative Weiner’s Itch Develop?

Every thought, perception, sensation, and emotion that expresses “you” has an electrical and chemical component: Genes, neuronal impulses, and neurotransmitters combine to express your personality as a sort of cocktail of emotional responses, drives, and memories. This cocktail settles your brain into patterns, and often into habits. Habits form in a brain pathway simply because that particular neuronal pathway has been stimulated many times- and usually because the original stimulation was perceived as positive (or, at the very least, “not negative”). Habits effectively become a kind of addiction—an electrochemical itch that you feel compelled to scratch. Unfortunately, Weiner’s particular itch led to the downfall of this bright, charismatic (and apparently well-endowed) politician.

Why Sex Feels So Good

It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to figure out that sex makes us happy. For most of us, having sex creates pleasurable feelings that (we hope) lead to orgasm. Many areas of your brain are involved in creating and processing the pleasure from sex, but there are three big ones:

§       When engaging in flirting, foreplay, and the ultimate act itself, your ventral tegmental area (VTA) is spilling out dopamine at a mile a minute, most of which makes its way to the limbic area called the nucleus accumbens. This nucleus is at the seat of both seeking and enjoying pleasure; it’s active when you’re pursuing the act of sex and also enjoying the fruits of your labor.

§       That big boost of dopamine in the accumbens is what makes you feel great, and it makes you crave more and more sensation.

§       The dopamine from your VTA also causes signals to go to your PFC so that you understand why and how you’re getting to have all this great fun!

An orgasm provides the biggest blast of legal, naturally occurring dopamine available to your brain. Dutch researchers, after scanning the brains of lucky volunteers experiencing orgasm, likened their brain scans to scans of people experiencing heroin rushes! Not only do you get that huge rush of stimulating neurotransmitters, but orgasm may also release a rush of oxytocin (also known as the “love hormone”), especially in women. Oxytocin cements a strong social connection bond with the person closest to you when orgasm was achieved. Dopamine provides the rush of attraction, but it is oxytocin that will make you associate that pleasure with a particular someone. It also brings that sense of euphoric calm after orgasm and is key in relieving stress. Sex is ultimately a powerful drug, particularly when it is linked to other excitatory behaviors, such as viewing pornography or surreptitious sexting with women other than your wife (which leads to a sense of danger and risk, and then, perhaps, a satisfying reward).

Why Some People Seek Stimulation Elsewhere

When you are first attracted to someone, your dopamine levels catapult your brain into the stratosphere. That’s why love at first sight occurs and why courtships are usually intense and filled with passionate encounters, all of which is nature’s way of making sure you mate. However, the first rush of excitement fades and so does the release of excessive amounts of dopamine. Novelty is needed to revive the level of dopamine needed to feel madly passionate. And, no, a new partner is not required. Imagination helps—and a willingness to re-engage with your partner by creating novel experiences, such as romantic vacations, surprise dates, new settings, a fresh approach, and so on.

Unfortunately, some people turn to affairs or pornography or the type of sexual encounters that Representative Weiner engaged in. The added rush that came from doing something risky, something forbidden, or possibly something that expressed his shadow, likely made the encounters even more enticing. Unfortunately, this type of sexual philandering can create compulsions that are very similar to drug addictions. Weiner’s brain is likely addicted to the same rush of brain chemicals drug addicts experience, leading him to crave more and more stimulation, to the point where his tolerance levels were elevated, requiring even riskier situations. There seems little doubt that he was experiencing an amazing rush, one that he was willing to risk everything to replicate.

How Addiction Affects the Brain

Different types of drugs affect the brain in different ways. Some, like cocaine and amphetamines, directly bind to different kinds of dopamine receptors and transporters, creating a burst of pleasure and creating a frantic, awake, energetic feeling. Others, like heroin and many addictive painkillers, such as morphine, are opiates that take over the internal opioid system, yielding a feeling of relaxed euphoria. Nicotine binds to the acetylcholine receptors and is often thought to increase feelings of alertness and calm.

Many other types of drugs trick the brain into altering its neurochemistry, and these changes can be debilitating and permanent, resulting in habituation, tolerance, and addiction. The feelings of momentary happiness, when pursued on a regular basis, are followed by painful withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety and often by physical pain, when the drug is no longer in the system and the brain scrambles to compensate.

Drugs, such as cocaine, boost dopamine release, but continued use ends up depleting the brain’s natural supply of dopamine. This means that, eventually, the person taking cocaine on a regular basis doesn’t have enough dopamine without cocaine, which leads to a constant desire for cocaine.

How Sex Affects the Brain

The more sex you have, the more vasopressin and especially oxytocin you produce. Both of these neurotransmitters strengthen a long-term relationship by linking the physical closeness of your partner to feelings of trust, empathy, and generosity. It’s why sex is so important in marriage and why sexless marriages tend to fall apart. Oxytocin also works as a neuromodulator, which means it sensitizes your body’s response to endomorphins, which often act as natural painkillers, particularly for headaches. (Yes, that’s right, having sex can cure headaches.)

The reward connection between the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens is one of the most powerful pleasure pathways in the brain, and it is highly stimulated by addictive drugs such as cocaine—or by addictive behaviors, such as compulsively watching pornography or compulsively sexting. Laboratory rats given free access to cocaine and taught to inject themselves with the drug by pressing a lever will often choose to self-administer cocaine, even when given a choice between the drug and tasty food. In fact, some rats chose the drug over food until they reached the brink of starvation. Clearly, strong feelings of love, happiness, and pleasure can overpower even basic survival instincts, such as the need to eat.

So that’s essentially what was happening in Anthony Weiner’s brain, and likely would have continued to happen—if he hadn’t been caught. Compulsions of this nature typically go on until the person’s health is compromised (in the case of drug addictions) or they’re caught. Either way, they rarely stop until their actions cause such a disruption in their lives that they are forced to quit. Like drug addicts, Weiner's compulsivity needs a long-term treatment program, and we hope, for his wife and unborn child’s sakes, that he does the work required to quiet his current itch and form new, healthier neural pathways, curbing his brain’s quest for thrill-seeking sexuality.