Doreen Kimura

Psychology

Behavioural Psychologist World expert on sex differences in the brain. Wrote the book Sex & Cognition, which argues that there truly is a difference between male and female brains.

"Don’t take too seriously the advice of people who supposedly know better than you do. As long as you are finding out things we didn’t know before, you are doing something right. "

A young male university student sits at a table, ready for the test, while a female graduate student gets her stopwatch ready on the other side of the table. She gives him a sheet of paper that has rows and rows of little pictures on it and starts the stopwatch. The fellow taking the test is getting $10 to sit for a half hour checking off pictures that match. (See example test question on page 86.) As soon as he finishes one page, she puts another one in front of him, until two minutes are up. Then she gives him other, similar tests. When he finishes, other students, both male and female, come into the room and do the test, again for two minutes each.

The test subjects have been randomly chosen so that they represent a cross section of the total student population, coming from different backgrounds, with a range of ages, heights, weights, etc. Later, after about 100 people have been tested, the graduate student organizes the results to see how many rows of pictures males matched correctly compared with how many rows females got right. This takes many hours of careful calculation and tabulation of the test results, including a statistical analysis. Some days later, Doreen Kimura comes to take a look at the results. Right away she can see they are onto something.

As a young scientist ...

Kimura grew up and went to school in Neudorf, a small town near the Qu’Appelle Valley in southern Saskatchewan. Facilities for studying science were almost non-existent at the schools she attended, so Kimura was initially interested in writing, languages and algebra. Before finishing high school, she dropped out to teach in one-room rural schoolhouses, first in Saskatchewan and then northern Manitoba. She was 17. While in Manitoba she saw an ad in a teachers’ magazine for an admission scholarship to McGill University in Montreal. She applied for the scholarship just for the fun of it, and got it!

At McGill she became interested in psychology as a result of having Donald O. Hebb as her introductory psychology course professor. Hebb was the famous neurologist who identified brain structures he called cell assemblies, or what are now called Hebb synapses. His theory guided experiments that foreshadowed neural network theory, now an important tool for artificial-intelligence research. After Kimura obtained her doctorate (PhD) in physiological psychology — the study of how the brain’s biology affects behaviour and experience — she spent two years as a post-doctoral fellow at the Montreal Neurological Institute before working at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center and the Zurich Kantonsspital in Switzerland. She became a professor in psychology at the University of Western Ontario in 1967 and worked there for 30 years. She also has a small consulting business that sells neuropsychological tests she developed. In 1998 she moved to Vancouver and took up a position in the Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University.

Kimura is founding president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, and she is concerned about new attitudes in the university research environment. For instance, certain areas of scientific inquiry are now frowned upon because some people might take offence at the way research may describe the abilities of certain groups (such as seniors or women). She also does not like the emphasis on collaborative research. “Both these trends kill the creative freedom of the individual. You just have to go ahead and find things out for yourself. This is the mark of a good scientist,” says Kimura.

Read Doreen Kimura's answers to questions...The Science