Can prescription or over-the-counter drugs improve creativity?

It’s true what you may have heard: some drugs do help creative capabilities.

Yet, it must be mentioned that continuing research indicates that many drugs do more creative damage than good. Over-the-counter and prescription drugs designed to combat anxiety are prime examples of this notion in action.

But first: an important disclaimer. I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or doctor, and do not provide the following information as medical or professional advice. If you are seriously depressed and need someone to help you, please, please call 1-800-273-8255 today.

With that said…

Alprazolam is a common anti-anxiety medication that works by binding to receptors in the brain that activate anxiety-like symptoms such as trembling hands or fluctuating speech. The common name of this drug is Xanax, which has become popular with musicians and singers exactly because of the positive effects it has on their performance.

Unfortunately Xanax has a trade-off that can’t be ignored: it acts as a powerful sedative that diminishes the power of a creative performance.

Alcohol and sleep too work this way: affecting the brain to the point where creative neurochemicals and processes can work uninhibited. But, like Xanax, after the first glass or two of alcohol (or any number of hours without needed sleep) the affects become more of a problem and less of a solution for the creative individual. Our senses become dull, transmissions in the brain become a jumbled mess, we overlook sensitive information. None of which is good for any sort of productivity, creative or otherwise.

There are, however, certain drugs that researchers have demonstrated can help creativity without the ill-effects that drugs like Xanax cause.

For example: Fluoxetine, commonly known as Prozac or Cipralex, is a popular drug that interacts with serotonin receptors to reduce anxiety and depression-like states. Since the 1980s, SSRIs like Prozac have been subscribed to more than 40,000,000 people. Many of those who take the drug do so to combat anxiety, though countless numbers take it in hopes of being more productive with their creativity.

It shouldn’t be at all surprising why so many poets, painters, dancers, musicians, writers, or architects resort to taking medications like Prozac.

The creative individual is one who tends to ruminate more than more analytical, less creative-driven people. One result of that level of rumination and reflection is unfortunately often depression.

For centuries – and even today ” it has been believed that brain disorders like depression, bi-polar, or schizophrenia are more likely to develop in creative individuals (or, to be fair, that creative individuals are likely to develop as a result of having those disorders). The creative individual is, after-all, a thinker unlike any other. Studies have shown that the connection between these brain disorders and creativity is certainly a valid one.

Of course, we don’t need studies to tell us that artists are commonly depressed; we have numerous examples of it.

Famed author David Foster Wallace suffered from debilitating depression, which later led him to take his own life at the age of 46. Sigmund Freud, the brilliant neurologist, also suffered from uncontrollable bouts of depression. Syd Barrett of the band Pink Floyd, the choreographer Vaclav Nijinsky, writer Ernest Hemingway, the sons and daughters of Albert Einstein, James Joyce, and Bertrand Russell, all suffered from some form of depression or schizophrenia as well.

In an attempt to escape the pains of these disorders, many creatives turn not only to art, but to medication; whether over-the-counter or out of a whiskey bottle, as an example.

The question around drugs for creative individuals has not been one of whether or not the drugs will necessarily help them to be creative, but rather (and arguably more importantly) whether drugs will alleviate the pains of depression or anxiety enough to help create. With the alleviation of the disorders or anxieties, however, comes the potential cost of what many creatives attribute their drive to creativity in the first place.

Drugs can certainly help drive creativity and productivity, but is the cost too much?

In his 2013 article Does Prozac help artists be creative? Alex Preston points out: “We deal with the conflicts in our subconscious by making objects out of them. If this, grossly simplified, is the theory behind the link between mental illness and creativity, then the worry for artists is that in banishing their black dogs they are also dousing the flames of inspiration, blunting the edge of their genius.”

So, as drugs like Prozac help millions of people to combat the pings of depression and anxiety, do those same people risk debilitating their creative potential?

In the same article, Preston explores this question in-detail by interviewing artists and writers who have taken Prozac to cure their depression. Preston writes:

“The novelist Amanda Craig was an early adopter of Prozac in Britain. Suffering from profound depression, she found SSRIs unhelpful, even damaging, despite the brief lift they gave to her mood. ‘Prozac enabled me to function, but dulled everything,’ she told me, 'including the shafts of joy that gradually pierce depression. It changed who I was and that included who I was as a writer.’ She finally stopped taking the pills and turned her experience of depression into a bestselling novel”

Craig’s experience is not uncommon. In-fact: in nearly every story and article I could find on the subject of using medication to combat depression (including bi-polar disorder), the creative class seems to suffer even more on the medication than off.

Without the will (or, often, the ability) to create, the creative can feel even more lost or out of their skin.

This isn’t always the case, of course. There are creatives who have found that drugs like Prozac have lifted them from their stupor in just the right way to find themselves – and their creative abilities – once again.

The balancing act is, unfortunately, not well-understood and too personalized for any scientist or researcher to explore on such a broad, grand level. Preston continues in his article:

“We begin to recognise the precarious high-wire act that most creative depressives undertake, trapped between the unbearable pain of their illness and the equally unbearable blockages brought about by their medication…Bolstered by heavy drug company spending, the message has been put out there: the brain is an organ like any other; treat depression as you would a stomach upset or broken ankle. This narrative misses the extraordinary complexity of the brain and the very limited understanding we have of its operations.”

Creative professionals of today are beginning to see just how poor the overarching narrative is. Treating depression with any sort of drug, in hopes of getting back into an active creative state, is a hard road to walk. It doesn’t help that these disorders and ailments are remarkably powerful and undermining by their own standards, let alone as part of the creative balancing act.

In The Midnight Disease (a book I cannot emphasize the value of enough), Alice Flaherty explores the affects of drug treatment for bi-polar, depression, and schizophrenia, and the impact it has on creativity.

Not only does she have her own, personal experience to tell the story of, but she has years of research and testing as a neurologist.

Flaherty goes into in-depth detail on much of what you’ve read here. Can certain medications help individuals to be more creative? It’s absolutely possible, she attests. We’ve seen it done before. But there’s another side of the coin that can cause more trouble than taking any sort of medication is worth.

Alternatives like meditation, exercise, and therapy may be a better alternative. The important thing is exactly what Flaherty concludes in her own chapter on drugs and the creative mind:

Let me conclude by giving the usual doctor speech about the importance, in the case of prescription drugs, of taking them under the supervision of a physician trained in that field.

As always, find what works for you.

Once again (and please read this part), I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or doctor, and do not provide this information as medical or professional advice. If you are seriously depressed, or suffering from any other debilitating form of depression, and need any sort of help, please call 1-800-273-8255 today.

The information provided here is of my own understanding and should only be taken as a starting point for additional research or discussion with a trained professional.

Photo by Dean.