The Making and Breaking of Minds: How social interactions shape the human mind

by Isabella Sarto-Jackson (Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Austria)

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“The Making and Breaking of Minds” is a multidisciplinary tour de force and, if you are not already engaged in this kind of research, you will be strongly inspired to take up the challenge. This book is an extraordinary exploration in the fabulous universe of the human brain, behavior, and integrative feedback loops. This approach will have universal academic appeal because it attempts to understand and explain the cross-talk between biological and cultural factors that become manifested in the individual brain development, neural wiring, neurochemical homeostasis, and behavior. According to the author, Dr. Isabella Sarto-Jackson, the idea that personality and behavioral propensities are innate or hard-wired by brain modules at birth is clearly disputed by recent neuroscientific research and studies in cultural psychology/psychiatry.
With powerful conceptual tools, case studies, and an in-depth review of recent literature in the neurosciences, the author offers convincing arguments related to a range of pressing issues. Indeed, she takes us to new frontiers in behavioral neurosciences of emotion, memory, learning, and the effects of individual context; arguments are built on the foundations of a rapidly emerging understanding of neuroplasticity and neurobiological processes that shape who we are.
Written with clarity, compelling evidence, and mastery of interdisciplinary science and supporting references, her programmatic goal is to address, head-on, the issues of cause and effect in psychology and psychiatry as opposed to the never-ending prospects of symptoms mitigation. She describes some of the most horrific atrocities in science and public policy that occurred over the last two centuries. Still, she counters such negativity with positive stories about those who championed the need for “motherly love” and advocates for those neurobiologically damaged just because they were born into poverty – compelling to any socially-minded individual or public policymaker to do better.
The author is critical of reductionist perspectives, including the gene-centric view, localizationism, brain modularity arguments, nature versus nurture dogma, and behaviorism. Dr. Sarto-Jackson’s arguments are not simple polemical statements; rather, her observations are supported by in-depth analyses of issues and concepts in the literature of contemporary neurobiology and behavioral studies.
She boldly challenges much of the traditional wisdom in the neurosciences causing one to rethink many predilections. There is no room for “just-so stories” in this comprehensive volume. Significantly, she provides precise definitions of neurobiological brain processes related to stress, anxiety, and prosocial behavior, revealing to the reader empirically based explanations of why people behave the way they do.
The foundation of her argument is set on the theoretical bedrock of neuroplasticity, as advanced by Edelman and LeDoux, among others. Neuroplasticity is the nervous system’s capacity to reorganize itself throughout life, presenting both contextual (cultural) and historically dependent (previous experience) mechanisms to form the dynamic human neural system. She clearly demonstrates that behavioral substrates are generated at several explanatory levels—from the molecular, neurobiological, information processing, neural networks, to mental states and cognition—all under the influence of the social environment. It is, therefore, obvious that no scientifically based explanation of human behavior, which is devoid of these concerns, will be complete and verifiable.
Dr. Sarto-Jackson is rightfully critical of narrow reductionism genetic determinism, modularity and brain structures, cognitivism, and localizationism. With clarity and purpose, she examines cause and effect relationships related to epigenetic, developmental processes, as well as issues of social context and individual histories. Others have advocated a similar theoretical perspective before but not in association with the convincing empirical support of multiple case studies and the extraordinary explosion of neurobiological research generated in the past five years. Her philosophical astuteness and ability to build theory and her knowledge of associated testable hypotheses incorporating actual behavioral experiments (ultimatum game) and real-time neurobiological examinations (deep brain stimulation studies) are admirable.
In several places, the author takes on current medical practices and offers alternatives that are logical and strongly supported by recent research. Interventions need not be just chemically-based; rather, she advocates socio-cultural mitigation measures based upon an effective change in situational context and social niche experiences. Psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, clinicians, and educators need to be proactive in preventative care for those that are most vulnerable, i.e., children, immigrants, the homeless, people trapped in poverty, and those who, through no fault of their own, are neurobiologically affected by their personal histories. There is hope if we recognize the issues that she has brilliantly articulated for scholarly research and actionable programs governed by care and empathy and guided by neurobiological and socio-cultural research. What is needed now is the will, politically and economically, to make life better for all of us.
From my particular perspective, the author’s conversation goes beyond the acrimonious debate that characterizes those in anthropology who disdain the scientific approach to the study of human behavior and sets a new agenda for cross-cultural studies that merge neurobiology and anthropological research in unique and compelling ways.
All those who are interested in understanding the universality of human behavior and neurobiology should read “The Making and Breaking of Minds”. Here, scholars in multiple fields are provided with navigation tools to understand better how the brain is sculpted by human experiential context and neuroplasticity. Indeed, if you want to describe neurobiologically the horrific impact of incarceration or the “custody” of immigrant children and adults, then you need to read this, especially scholars in anthropology, sociology, history, government policy, and advocacy groups. You will surely be saddened by stories of abuse, enslavement, poverty, and the history of the medical profession’s complicity in atrocities, but these case studies serve an important purpose.
This volume is especially important to a new generation of scholars willing to do the hard work of interdisciplinary research. The reward for such conviction will be to effect change to restorative neurology resulting in a new kind of hope for patients neurobiologically damaged by the modern world.
In summary, it is seldom that an author can master contributions from so many scientific fields and then integrate collective content into a cogent explanation of human behavior that is unique and inexplicable from a single discipline’s perspective. This is truly a book that will cause the reader to rethink their worldview in multiple dimensions, including social, medical, political, and scientific perspectives. The unproductive dogma that has guided the nature versus nurture debate for too many years is laid bare by the author’s clear argument that human behavior is the product of integrative systems incorporating genetics, epigenetics, neurobiology, environment, cultural, social and individual context. Neurosciences have exploded with new discoveries resulting in an all too often explanation of human behavior as a linear extension of brain processes. Social sciences, on the other hand, explain human behavior and social institutions from the perspective that views the human brain as a black box or, worse, a set of predetermined genetic modules guiding innate behaviors.
What a wonderful book, scientifically informed, compassionate, and a major contribution to mental wellness and effective interventions. I highly recommend that all scholars interested in human behavior, in all its many dimensions, read this and take note of a coming revolution in the science of us.

Dr Daniel O. Larson

Upon thorough reading of the book of Isabella Sarto-Jackson “The Making and Breaking of Minds” I conclude that this is an up-to-day book, in view of the rapidly changing world and human knowledge of it. To revaluate the idea about the selfish rational human individual who thrives by steadily calculating how to maximize one’s own profit, to abandon the simplex and naive framework of the selfish gene and of genes as exclusive units of Darwinian selection is not an abstract academic task but the urgent need to abolish the pernicious ideology that affects the present human condition. The author of the book argues that there is a mutual, reciprocal causality between genes as “bookkeepers” of the evolutionary acquired potentials and the actual and continually changing environment and backs her arguments by a plethora of novel empirical data. I find particularly valuable those chapters of the book that highlight the importance of critical phases in human ontogeny, in particular, the early childhood and the adolescence when neglecting of parents (and social neglect in general), stress and traumatic experiences may leave permanent traces in the genome (by silencing some of the genes, or epigenetically marking them). And I appreciate that the last chapter (“Resilience & Nurture Put into Practice”) provides some advice and recommendations on how to alleviate the injury and/or build up a harmonious personality.

Dr Ladislav Kováč
Professor of Biochemistry
Comenius University

Sarto-Jackson’s marvelously compelling and rigorous book puts the very best psychoeducation into practice, in the process offering inspiration and optimism to thousands who have directly experienced trauma and abuse, or witnessed its impact. The closing sentence captures her ambition: “to pave the way for handing back options for life-affirming actions to the person afflicted, thereby fostering a commitment to long-term involvement and self-efficacy” (p. 241). Far from being victims of the dictates of our genes, escape really is in our hands.

[Extract from book review appearing on the journal 'Biological Theory', 18 July 2023. Reviewer: Kevin N. Lala (School of Biology, University of St Andrews, UK).]

Sarto-Jackson’s “The Making and Breaking of Minds” is a rich and original contribution to the fields of developmental psychology and preventative medicine. Its central claim is that the social environments we encounter in childhood and adolescence have a profound and historically under-appreciated impact on brain development and cognitive function in adulthood, predicting a wide range of health and behavioral outcomes. A particular focus is placed on the role of poverty, trauma, and neglect in childhood on later life outcomes (in particular mental illness, and propensity toward violence and antisociality).

[Extract from book review on the journal ‘Philosophical Psychology’, 30 Mar 2023. Reviewer: Elena Walsh (School of Liberal Arts, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities The University of Wollongong).]

The human brain has a truly remarkable capacity. It reorganizes itself, flexibly adjusting to fluctuating environmental conditions – a process called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity provides the basis for wide-ranging learning and memory processes that are particularly profuse during childhood and adolescence. At the same time, the exceptional malleability of the developing brain leaves it highly vulnerable to negative impact from the surroundings. Abusive or neglecting social environments, as well as socioeconomic deprivation and poverty, cause toxic stress and complex traumas that can severely compromise cognitive development, emotional processing, self-perception, and executive brain functions. The neurophysiological changes entailed impair emotional regulation, lead to heightened anxiety, and afflict attachment and the formation of social bonds. Neuroplastic changes following severely adverse experiences are not something that a person grows out of and gets over. These experiences alter the neurobiological and biochemical makeup and cause people to live in an emotionally relabeled world in which the evaluation of any social cue, their behavior, cognition, and state of mind are biased towards the negative. Even more worrying, detrimental neurophysiological consequences are not limited to the traumatized individual but are often transmitted to subsequent generations through a process of social niche construction, thereby creating a vicious cycle. Thus, the making and breaking forces of the brain are epitomized by parents, alloparents, peers, and our socioeconomic niche.

This book expounds on the formative role that the social environment plays in healthy brain development, especially during infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Based on scientific findings, the book advocates for bold measures and responsible stewardship to combat child abuse, maltreatment, and child poverty. By bringing together insights from neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and social education work, it lays out a fact-based, transdisciplinary endeavor that aims at rising to the societal challenge of providing a rewarding perspective to youth at risk. It will be a valuable resource for academics from social education, pedagogy, cognitive science, neuroscience, as well as professionals in the fields of social work, pedagogy, education, child welfare.

List of Figures



Chapter 1 Shedding New Light on the Nature-versus-Nurture Debate

Chapter 2 Brain Development and Plasticity

Chapter 3 Normalcy in the Light of Plasticity

Chapter 4 Gene Expression: Nurture Fueling Nature

Chapter 5 Neurobiological Processes of Memory Formation

Chapter 6 The Effects of Emotion, Stress, and Traumatic Experiences on Cognition

Chapter 7 The Social Brain: Attachment & the Effects of Emotional and Social Neglect on Cognition

Chapter 8 The Devastating Impact of Violence

Chapter 9 Resilience & Nurture Put into Practice



Isabella Sarto-Jackson is a neurobiologist, executive manager of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, and president (2022 - 2023) of the Austrian Neuroscience Association. She holds a Master’s degree in genetics and a PhD in neurobiochemistry. For more than a decade, she has worked as a neuroscientist at the Center for Brain Research of the Medical University in Vienna. She has since extended her research focus to cognitive science and evolutionary biology and gives lectures in cognitive science at the University of Vienna and cognitive biology at the Comenius University in Bratislava. She is associate editor of the journal 'Biological Theory' (Springer Nature) and co-chair of the education committee of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology. Over the last years, she has dedicated a lot of effort to teaching neuroscientific findings to social education workers and social welfare workers by giving advanced training courses. Her work is highly interdisciplinary, i.e., being at the interface of neurobiology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and social education. Her particular passion is advocating for children at risk and enabling equal opportunities for them in order to reach their full cognitive potential.

Neuroplasticity, brain development, evolutionary theory, cultural evolution, social education, infant brain development, child abuse, trauma, resilience, nature–nurture, child advocacy