Does Prozac Help Artists Be Creative?

Prozac pills croppedHas creativity been squelched in our Prozac nation? Alex Preston discusses whether or not SSRI antidepressant drugs “hamper the creative process, extinguishing the spark that produces great art, or do they enhance artistic endeavour?” in the Guardian:

Twenty-five years after pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly unleashed Prozac on the red-braced 80s, SSRIs are still the world’s most popular antidepressants. They are swallowed by more than 40 million people, from Beijing to Beirut, knitting a web of happiness from New York to New Caledonia. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, of which Prozac is the best known, are the defining drug of the modern age, the crutch of choice for the worried well. In the US, where one in 10 takes antidepressants, you can buy beef-flavoured Prozac for your dog, trademarked Reconcile. The Prozac revolution has not only changed the way we think about depression (aided by Eli Lilly’s mammoth advertising campaign); it has also changed the way we think, full stop.

In his 1993 book Listening to Prozac, the psychiatrist Peter D Kramer explored the ethical issues around the rise of what he termed “cosmetic pharmacology”. With a daily pill people could now banish social awkwardness or the unhappiness of relationship break-ups, forge brassily assertive personae from their once shy selves. Like the Soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Prozac was making people “better than well”. Kramer wrote of the “personality transformations” that occurred in a substantial minority of those taking the drug, briefly pausing to speculate as to what impact this might have had on their creativity. While we know, thanks to Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire, that poets are up to 30 times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the national average, we have no idea how or if the pills they take to treat the disease affect their creative output.

The French writer Henry de Montherlant said that happiness writes white. For me that whiteness was the colour of a 20mg Cipralex pill – a close cousin of Prozac – taken at the breakfast table. With the depthless chemical happiness of the drug, a thin layer of snow seemed to fall over my mind, blocking access to strong feeling, cutting me off from the hidden impulses that drove me to write. Sometimes I did feel “better than well”, but more often I was haunted by the uncanny feeling that I was skimming over the surface of my life. Looking back, those Prozac years have a curious, occluded feel, as if viewed through a gauze…

[continues in the Guardian]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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40 Comments on "Does Prozac Help Artists Be Creative?"

  1. Liam_McGonagle | May 20, 2013 at 11:15 am |

    What is the difference between a vitamin and a drug?

    • Calypso_1 | May 20, 2013 at 11:39 am |

      Is that a rhetorical question or are you actually making a query? : )

      • Liam_McGonagle | May 20, 2013 at 12:11 pm |

        I see no reason the two should be mutually exclusive.

        • you mean a supplement and a drug?

          • Calypso_1 | May 20, 2013 at 12:50 pm |

            Supplement is a really vague term. I think it implies more that one is using nutrition, possibly pharmaceuticals as a means to achieve goals outside of treatment of pathological states.

        • Calypso_1 | May 20, 2013 at 12:46 pm |

          Fair enough.

          Think of the vitamin as a component in the system of the organism who’s function is completely endogenous. Vitamins are required for normal metabolism. In this sense they are a nutrient. They may to some degree be synthesized & or derived from other substances metabolically but for the most part are not available in the quantities necessary for proper functioning unless replenished in dietary sources or through other externally metabolized energy sources such as sunlight or uptake from symbiotic microorganisms). The requirements for, & the ability to synthesize, etc vary from organism to organism.
          Vit C as was noted previously is produced endogenously by
          the vast majority of specious, our line of primates lucked out.

          A drug on the other hand (and let’s exclude the idea of one
          produced by mankind’s efforts & stick to nature) has properties that exert biochemical effects in the body that are not necessary for functioning during homeostasis but create an environment conducive to returning to or maintaining homeostasis in the presence of ongoing pathology.

          In some respects this can in fact be a vitamin. You would use a vitamin outside of its primary role as a nutrient as a drug to treat the pathology related to its deficiency. You might also use vitamins outside of the standard dosages in other pathologies because of various physiological or metabolic deficits.

          For the most part though, ‘drugs’ are not molecules that
          have a standard function in the body. They are often similar to functional molecules such that they may enhance, suppress, alter the parameters in various ways, etc. In doing so you are changing things up in a way that they body will have to adapt – thus side effects. Hopefully, side effects are less than the symptoms of the disease and the body has enough reserve to adapt & compensate.
          Other drugs really have no comparison to standard function
          & are essentially toxins to battle it out with weaker organisms that are causing you problems.

          …Anyhow, pharmacology is a looong topic. I’ve probably got about 200 lbs of it on the bookcase. Feel free to inquire further.

          • Ted Heistman | May 20, 2013 at 3:42 pm |

            You should submit more

          • Calypso_1 | May 20, 2013 at 3:46 pm |

            w/ dragon dictation I intend to do so. I’ve been doing a lot of dictation on the commute & working on the transcripts.

            Despite all the time I’m on here I still have to type gobs o stuff for work…so this is often a wind down.

          • Ted Heistman | May 20, 2013 at 3:58 pm |

            Dragon loves me. I can speak an average of 200 wmpm with less than 1% error rate. I use it for my job. I need to invest in the software.

          • Calypso_1 | May 20, 2013 at 4:06 pm |

            The NSA is way ahead of you on the $$$.

    • JoiquimCouteau | May 20, 2013 at 2:35 pm |

      “vitamin” is an anachronistic label applied in the 1930s to a series of extracts of cow liver thought to be essential to growth. The distinction is to an extent arbitrary, but vitamins are all substances that are biosynthesized either by humans or by organisms consumed by humans.

  2. Calypso_1 | May 20, 2013 at 11:56 am |

    It should also be noted that the book referenced in this article ‘Touched by Fire’ also clearly demonstrates that artists w/ mental illness, despite popular myth, are the least productive when they are symptomatic. Of course it can be argued (and is presented as such in the book) that much of the creative output comes from the resulting struggles with these states and attempting to capture what was experienced.
    However, it is also made perfectly clear that history is full of examples of creative and productive artistic individuals who suffered no apparent aspects of mental illness.

    • Matt Staggs | May 20, 2013 at 4:41 pm |

      I found a good bit of “Touched by Fire” problematic. The author relied far too much on post-mortem diagnoses to support her thesis. it’s been maybe a decade since I read it and I may not be remembering it correctly, though.

      • Calypso_1 | May 20, 2013 at 5:12 pm |

        Man those decades are starting to role by. Your right it came out in ’93. Ouch.

        I agree, that is present. It is certainly a psychohistory case study on famous personages. In that sense it uses standard genealogical methods for tracing the presence of metal illness/suicide within family trees. I don’t think it falls to the level of speculation ie ‘Oh, Einstein was ADD/dyslexic…whatever’. She used exhaustive & fully annotated case studies of the available sanatorium notes, artists own records, family members etc.

        There are around 800 citations for the 260p paperback. I’ve also read her textbook & work on suicide so the academic (& personal if you know her bio) is there.

        I don’t think the book tries to actually be a study of the dynamic of genius/madness as it exists in there here and now, but rather a tour through the historical viewpoint and what can be determined with hindsight.

        • Monkey See Monkey Do | May 21, 2013 at 5:37 am |

          The way I see mental illness related to creativity is that ‘anything in and of itself isn’t anything at all’. Mental illness can present an opportunity for someone to explore creative realms that others simply may never have the capacity to explore. Others will be consumed by it and create nothing external. New methodologies and up to date rituals need to be developed to help the self destructive externalize and alchemize their internal forms into creative outside forces.

  3. Creativity is mental illness in a repressive society

    • Calypso_1 | May 20, 2013 at 1:06 pm |

      I don’t know Ted. This Society tried to help me w/ my creativity. I was sent to a gifted school. Then a state funded Fine Arts school. Had full scholarships for performing arts. Had an NEA grant. In the end it was other problems that caused me to crash & burn in this field.

      However, I now feel without a doubt that if the State had put even a 10th of the effort into my early mental health as it did into the production of my creativity, that things I had to deal with much later could have been addressed to much greater effect.

      • Ted Heistman | May 20, 2013 at 3:40 pm |

        The State is an organism that wants to feed on your chi. The State isn’t really interested in your creativity per se. That may sound wacky and New Age put actually that is the dealy yo.

        Pure creativity always exists outside the State. Pure creativity entails a lot of extraneous shit the State has no use for and is even threatening to it. So yeah, there is State funded Art. When you look at Nazi Facsist Art and Soviet Art, you get a clear idea, from an outside perspective, that its not true art but its harder to see when its close up.

        • Calypso_1 | May 20, 2013 at 3:53 pm |

          I hear you. I understand that perspective & offer no real disagreement.

          “State” in a more abstract sense was not as deep as I wanted to go with my anecdote. I fully appreciate the role that a society utilizes, co-opts, distorts creativity for its own means.

          In that sense I think the State (Western Civ) perpetuates the idea of the tortured artist. The tortured artist is less likely to be the revolutionary artist. There is a stake in the creative person being the ‘accepted’/’productive’ form of mental illness, whether or not their is any degree of truth to this.

          Certainly areas that could be explored in greater depth here.

          • Ted Heistman | May 20, 2013 at 4:00 pm |

            I like outsider art a lot even if it has been co-opted by the snooty NY fine art scene. Its not the schizophrenics fault.

  4. Chaos_Dynamics | May 20, 2013 at 1:02 pm |

    Nice assembly of data.

    For internet archive explorers the rec.arts forums from the early nineties contain considerable conversation on this subject, plus creative output, particularly rec.arts.prose and rec.arts.poems.

    Especially interesting since it was the early days of both www and emerging ssri applications so the individual expressions are a unique convergence point in history.

    The coincidence of both is a fascinating timeline/cycle study and is not serendipitous.

  5. Thad McKraken | May 20, 2013 at 3:38 pm |

    This is really quite a great article. It gets to the end before it mentions the obvious, can you accomplish the exact same shit as Prozac through talk therapy? I just think the idea of addictively drugging yourself to avoid your problems rather than deal with them is a bad one in the long term. That would be the shamanic perspective which encourages you to acknowledge the root causes of your neuroses. Magick has continually pointed out to me that a lot of my issues come from things I’d suppressed and ignored long ago.

    I also find it interesting that so many have this idea that they can’t create unless they’re depressed. I’m the exact opposite. If I’m in a pissy mood or a bad place in my life, my art is total shit. It’s why booze and marijuana are quite helpful. I come home from work, I’m in a pissy mood, I have a bowl and a glass of wine to put me in a better mood. Now I can work on creative stuff. I have days when I totally feel like shit mentally that I was planning on doing creative work. I do something else instead and work on the creative side when I’m feeling better. I wrote an entire book I did nothing to promote because I thought it was too dark. The darkness really stemmed from me not being in a great mental place for most of my 20’s.

    • Same story here. Except I’m still doing the darkness of the 20s thing. I’m trying to go it without the big pharma drugs. The doctors I’ve seen so far have either been wholly disinterested or suffering from an abject lack of knowledge. You know it’s bad when you start asking about Freud and Jung and 5-HT2C receptors and they have no idea what you’re on about. Free UK medical coverage? I guess you get what you pay for.

      It’s going pretty well actually so far, admittedly it hasn’t been a drug-free trip, but my body seems to know what it needs if I listen to it. I’ve managed to clear up the majority of my depression with meditation, tai chi, liberal amounts of weed and light to moderate doses of LSD. My creativity seems to be settling into a regular monthly cycle with periodic, sometimes even daily experiments just for fun instead of months of self-torture over the lack of ability or focus to produce followed by maybe 2 or 3 days of intense relief.

      • Ted Heistman | May 21, 2013 at 1:03 pm |

        That uninformed doctor thing seems to be a recurring theme. Everyone has the internet now and intelligent people can do their own research, plus doctors are really busy. I think most doctors are stuck on the other side of a paradigm shift.

        • Yeah I do think that individuals are capable of taking much more responsibility for their own health than they’ve been lead to believe. An old phrase springs to mind, “Can’t suck on mommy’s tit forever.” But as I have learned (today in fact) sometimes you just can’t see the forest for the trees. And that’s when you’d hope that someone else with a benign intent could. And yeah clashing paradigms – the difficulty I’ve had is reconciling the gap between popular conceptions of ‘self’ which many of the doctors and nurses I’ve met seem to be under the influence of, and the exploded conception one obtains from doing anything remotely introspective i.e the use of psychedelics for self knowledge. I’d love to know if anyone who hasn’t gone the chemical route has found themselves in a similar situation.

          • Ted Heistman | May 21, 2013 at 3:23 pm |

            Me! I have never taken any kind of psychiatric drug even though I have reason to believe I have faced serious psychological conditions/ailments such as ADHD, PTSD, anxiety and depression, panic attacks, social fear, etc. I’ve always sought to self medicate with knowledge.

            I think being sexually molested by a child psychiatrist age eight, early on, set me on a path of working outside the system to heal.

          • I can imagine how the event, however difficult, would have removed many illusions about human nature very early on. I was adopted after malnutrition and neglect, I didn’t learn to walk and talk until I was 4 or 5 (I was physically unable to walk due to 1st degree burns after being left in a sink at 8 months…apparently). I was a very quiet child, my adoptive mother would accuse me often of having no feelings due to my passivity and silence. It seemed the norm to think of people in terms of the purely material/biological. But while that was happening, there was no real communication, as there was no acknowledgement of mind, but I guess at this point It’s more appropriate to call it ‘spirit’. I get this same experience with many health professionals I have visited or been visited by over the course of time. With shamanism it is different. The shamans I have met so far, I feel like they can actually see me. I kinda wish this was a cultural norm, particularly within families. But you bring up things like shamanism and the occult in normal circles and people begin to regard you as nuts.

          • Ted Heistman | May 21, 2013 at 7:18 pm |

            Wow, that is an amazing story! I am trying to bring up shamanism in more circles in order to connect with more people with the same interests. More people are open to it than you may think! Of course, I live in Madison, WI.

            Its interesting that you seem to describe what is called having a “flat affect” and Shamans being able to connect despite that.

            I think I know exactly what you are talking about. I sense peoples energy which I think gives me a type of emotional intelligence and sensitivity toward people, that has been described as “emotional IQ” but I actually took a test once that supposedly tested “EQ” based on discerning emotions from photographs of facial expressions and I didn’t do very well.

            But I can sense peoples emotions from quite a ways away, like various people on the bus. I assume reiki practitioners are the same way. I think many people can sense others energy but that for most people it is unconscious. I suspect childhood trauma my actually cause people to develop the ability to read energy. Possibly this is related to “shamanic sickness” and the path of the “wounded healer”

  6. Ted Heistman | May 20, 2013 at 3:41 pm |

    Outsider Art is da Bomb! It inspires me.

  7. BuzzCoastin | May 20, 2013 at 7:07 pm |

    before one can answer that question
    you’d have to answer the question
    what is art?
    how you define art determines the answer

    is art some kitsch piece designed to sell to some rich collector?
    a piece of music for mass consumption & merchandising?
    a movie that costs several hours of your time & money for light diversion?
    a stage play for bored Broadway effete elites?
    a book that keeps talk shows going & minds dulled?
    is it a fake democratic election show?

  8. Noah_Nine | May 20, 2013 at 7:20 pm |

    I’ll take my lows and highs over feeling nothing any day…

    • Calypso_1 | May 20, 2013 at 9:46 pm |

      What if you start with feeling nothing?

      • then i’d face the void

        • Calypso_1 | May 21, 2013 at 10:51 am |

          What is this void you perceive & what would project into it?

          • the void I sometimes perceive and I think most or all depressed people perceive can be described as the meaninglessness and purposelessness of existence. unless one faces this fact head on, it will be repressed and manifest as all sorts of anxieties and depressing feelings.
            what would project into it? not sure exactly what you mean, but if I understand you correctly that’s a great question because it is good for one who is facing the void to ask, “who is the one who faces the void?” it is I, a being created to need meaning, purpose, and essential above all else, Love. And this is either a gift or a curse or both

          • Calypso_1 | May 21, 2013 at 10:17 pm |

            The greatest void I have every encountered was not meaningless but without meaning because no attribute could remain within it. Without purpose because it was outside of possibility. In this was stillness – absence of illusion, of false light.
            There was nothing to project. Nothing to receive. Even now its remnant shadow is more cleansing than the love of a thousand suns.

          • that’s what you may experience when you’ve learned to let go. those with stronger egos may experience the void as a bit rougher. it hurts to pull a Band-Aid off.

          • Calypso_1 | May 22, 2013 at 11:21 am |

            its not a matter of ego strength but ego attachment.

  9. Let’s just assume that it does increase creativity for a moment . . . YOU’RE STILL OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND!!!!

    LSD, Mescaline, Psilocybin. . . ALL safer than Prozac if they aren’t adulterated. I’ve dosed every day (100mic, almost no hallucingenic effects after day two due to the long standing tolerance typical of hallucinogens) for a month and I’ve tried a 60-day trial of Prozac. I felt better daily, and at the end of my experiments, having eaten the LSD. I would go further to suggest that Prozac has a very subtle and not very definitive tendency to induce anti-social thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Whereas LSD I can really say that I don’t remember thinking much of anything because I was too busy DOING things with other people.

    But, yes, I could say that Prozac made me more creative in my introspective desires for retribution, revenge, and suicide. . . so I can’t say that it’s complete bullshit even if it is moronic. Perhaps it would benefit someone who must portray a schizophrenic in some sort of production or publication.

  10. Is it possible that Prozac can help and hinder art? Humans can be incredibly adaptable.

    Here’s Brian Lewis Saunders drawing under the influence of Zoloft. Which I understand to be much like Prozac.

    It’s very nice compared to others he made on differing drugs. I do wonder if it may change if he continuously took Prozac. My experience with an SSRI was that it was awesome at first, and then it started to slow my thinking process down too much. Then I started to get small seizures while laying in bed before sleep. That was my sign that the specific brand was no bueno for me.

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