Book: The making and breaking of minds

[…] our social surroundings are the making or breaking point of how we develop.

–  The Making and Breaking of Minds: “How social interactions shape the human mind” by Isabella Sarto-Jackson (Vernon Press),  is concerned with the formative role that the social environment plays in healthy brain development in humans, especially during infancy, childhood, and adolescence.

Underlying the cognitive development is the process of neuroplasticity. This leads to the brain’s remarkable capacity of reorganizing itself, flexibly adjusting to fluctuating environmental conditions.  

brain wave art divider

About the Making and Breaking of Minds

The human brain has a truly remarkable capacity. 

It reorganizes itself, flexibly adjusting to fluctuating environmental conditions – a process called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is particularly marked in childhood and adolescence and provides the basis for wide-ranging learning and memory processes.

At the same time, this exceptional malleability of the developing brain leaves it highly vulnerable to negative impact from the surroundings. It is the social surroundings that representing the making or breaking point how we develop.

Abusive or neglecting social environments can severely afflict neural pathways and synaptic connections, compromising cognitive development, emotional processing, self-perception, and executive brain functions. Similarly, toxic stress and traumatic experiences during development have drastic effects on brain plasticity impairing emotional regulation leading to heightened anxiety and adversely affecting attachment and the formation of social bonds.

Noteworthy, neuroplastic events that occur in response toxic stress are not only triggered by abuse and neglect, but also by socioeconomic deprivation and poverty. Neuroplastic changes following adverse experiences are not something that one can grow out of and get over. 

On the contrary, these experiences alter a person’s neurobiological and biochemical makeup and consequently their behavior, cognition, and state of mind. Traumatized people end up living in an emotionally relabeled world in which the evaluation of any social cue is biased towards the negative.

Even more worrying, such detrimental consequences are not limited to the traumatized individuals, but are often transmitted to subsequent generations. When becoming adults, traumatized people seek out niches that match their internal mental structures shaped during early childhood years. Or alter their social environment to make it match their internal structures. 

This process of actively creating an environment to which one is well adapted is an important evolutionary process called niche construction  – a form of nongenetic inheritance. Of all species, humans are the most striking examples of niche constructors creating cultural, ecological, and social niches. 

As descendants usually inherit their ancestors’ niches and pass them on to their children, abusive and traumatizing environments are transmitted over generations. 

Addressing the societal challenge of child abuse and maltreatment, therefore, requires broad interdisciplinary endeavors, bringing together neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, and social education workers in order to break the vicious circle.

Endorsement by Dr Ladislav Kováč

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, Bratislava, Slovakia

Quotes from the Making and Beaking of Minds


The fact that children were seen as property without rights over a long historical period facilitated parental behavior of child neglect, maltreatment, and even infanticide until today. (p. 70)

Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as well as other stressful life events […] in childhood cause excessive and prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body and brain. (p. 216)


[…] forgetting is an indispensable feature of human memory at all ages. It may sound paradoxical but forgetting improves mnemonic competence. People who can forget irrelevant events can better remember pertinent events. (p. 128)

[…] we all have a lot of intact, implicit memories which we don’t have conscious access to. These memories are subconsciously stored, still available in principle, yet can only be recalled by evoking other interconnected, implicitly stored memories. (p. 134)


A major predictor of stress related changes in physiology is the social status an individual attains, including experiences of harassment by others, and opportunities of social support. […] findings are inevitably linked to poverty and lack of social advancements. (p. 159)

Stress responses caused by multiple sources have a cumulative toll on an individual’s physical and mental health. As a rule of thumb, the more frequently adverse experiences a child encountered, the greater the likelihood of developmental and cognitive delays and health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and depression. (p. 218)


Traumatized people and people exposed to chronically stressful situations will end up living in an emotionally relabeled world in which the evaluation of social cues is biased towards the negative. (p. 162)



Humans’ general propensity for altruism and prosocial behavior seem to have a strong inborn component that is modified during one’s life time. (p. 189)

Endorsement by Dr Daniel O. Larson

“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
Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach, Department of Anthropology

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