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. "

The Story

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.

The Science

Behavioural psychologists study the workings of the human brain to understand how people differ from each other. One method is to give people psychological tests.

Kimura currently studies how male and female brains process information differently — their cognitive functions. She also looks at how natural chemicals in our bodies, called hormones, relate to different cognitive patterns in men and women, in much the same way that other hormone studies have discovered different physical asymmetries in men and women. For example, researchers have found that, on average, men have larger right testicles and women have larger left breasts.

Kimura’s research has shown that, on average, men outperform women on a variety of spatial tasks, especially when an object must be identified in an altered orientation, or after certain imaginary manipulations such as folding. Men also excel at tests of mathematical reasoning, with the differences between sexes most remarkable when it comes to the most brilliant mathematicians. Women, in contrast, are generally better able to recall the spatial layout of an array of objects, to scan arrays quickly to find matching objects and to recall words, whether word lists or meaningful paragraphs. These sex differences usually begin at an early age and last a lifetime. They also occur across cultures.

Kimura is investigating why women have an advantage over men in the recall of verbal material. She has shown that this advantage applies to words such as “idea,” which convey abstract concepts, as well as to words like “potato,” which name real things. Strangely, she finds that, on average, women are not better at recalling nonsense words such as “borgin,” a preliminary finding she is pursuing.

Kimura experiments purely for the purpose of increasing human knowledge about the differences between men and women with no particular practical application in mind. However, in an environment where it can be politically dangerous to question popular notions of the equality of men and women, her research is perceived by some to be very controversial. Kimura believes it’s natural for men and women to choose different careers, preferring jobs that best fit their innate talents.

According to Kimura, the larger number of men in fields of mathematics, computing, engineering, and physics is a fact of life. She criticizes recent initiatives to increase the representation of women in these disciplines. She says, “Engaging in coercive social engineering to balance the sex ratios may actually be the worst kind of discrimination. It also serves to entice some people into fields they will neither excel in nor enjoy.”

sex differences in the brain
Images by: Fedak Medical Illustration

1. Mental Rotation Test: In this test, you must match the object on the left with two in the group on the right. On average, men can pick out matching rotated objects like these faster than women; women are better at matching objects when they have to pick them out of an array of objects.

2. Aphasias, or speech disorders, can occur when people’s brains are damaged by some kind of accident or disease. In women, aphasias occur more often when the brain damage is in the front of the brain. In men, these disorders occur when the damage is in the back of the brain.2. 

3. Kimura counts the number of finger ridges between two specific points on a person’s fingerprint. People with high ridge counts on the left hand are better at “feminine” tasks such as the visual matching tests above. On average, any sample group of people will have more ridges on their right hands. But Kimura has found that, on average, sample groups of women and groups of homosexual men have a higher incidence of individuals with more ridges on their left hands. Some people consider findings such as Kimura’s to be controversial: They would like to believe that there are no differences between men and women, or heterosexuals and homosexuals, or that these differences are not biological, but learned. Kimura has spent a lifetime conducting experiments that indicate there are statistically significant biological differences between men and women. In recent years she has de-emphasized the finger ridge studies, though she claims they still hold up to scientific scrutiny.

Mystery

Kimura offered no mystery for future generations to solve, saying that it’s the unpredictability of science that makes it interesting.

Explore Further
  •  Doreen Kimura, Dissenting Opinions, 3 Wolves Press, 2002.
  •  Doreen Kimura, Sex & Cognition, MIT Press, 2000.
  •  Doreen Kimura, “Sex Differences in the Brain,” Scientific American, May 2002.
Memorial for Kimura: http://members.psyc.sfu.ca/people/remembrance/kimura

Career Advice

 

So You Want to Be a Behavioural Psychologist

 

Assuming that a university education is in your future, Kimura does not recommend making career decisions as early as high school. She says, “I think the best method is to take a variety of courses in the first year or two of university, so that you can find out what you like and what you are good at.” If you end up in life working on things you enjoy and do well, she says, that’s as good as it gets. If you are interested in neuropsychology, you will need to take an introductory biology course and some further courses in physiology and neuroscience.

People who become psychologists often work in a clinical or academic setting. Neuropsychologists in hospitals assess patients with brain damage from accidents, diseases or birth defects. The precise description of a person’s abilities can help in planning his or her course of rehabilitation, for example, or to predict when she or he can go back to work. Neurological testing also helps to diagnose brain disorders and to decide whether surgery or some other therapy is required.

People who choose to become university professors or college instructors probably will do research similar to the work described in this chapter. They will teach courses to students,

as well as conduct seminars with graduate
students.

All psychologists at a professional level must obtain a graduate degree, usually a doctorate. If they enter clinical fields, this will usually include a process of training and examination to become licensed or registered in the province or state where they work. The time from obtaining a bachelor’s degree to completion of a doctorate is variable but will be a minimum of four years, often longer. A PhD program requires research and the writing of a thesis (a book-length document) based on original research.

Kimura’s career began with an undergraduate honours program in psychology at McGill University, which she did not enter until the third year of a four-year program. She then obtained a master of arts (ma) degree on an aspect of brain asymmetry. Her PhD research

at the Montreal Neurological Institute involved the role of the temporal lobes of the brain in speech perception and in memory.

Like many young people, Kimura entered the field of psychology because she wanted to do something that would help people. “But once I started to do research I was far more interested in how things actually worked, so although I did some clinical assessment and enjoyed it, it became secondary to the research questions,” she says. She subsequently served as clinical supervisor at the University of Western Ontario, both as neuropsychologist at the University Hospital, where she studied neurological patients, and in the university’s Department of Psychology, guiding the training of graduate students in clinical neuropsychology. The university position was her main job.

Her research helped improve the diagnosis of disorders after brain damage. Several tests she devised became widely used in clinical neuropsychology, so she ended up helping people after all. Kimura says, “It is often the case that what we consider ‘pure’ research may become just as useful in helping people as activities specifically designed to help. This is one of the strongest reasons for supporting research that is not intended to be applied for any useful purpose, but is guided only by a search for truth.”

In an average day as a psychology professor Kimura prepares lectures for classes, conducts research at the university on “ordinary” people and at the hospital on neurological patients. She looks at data obtained from research and analyzes it to discover what might be happening — for example, how the level of certain sex hormones in an individual relates to his or her spatial perception ability. She also spends time writing up experimental findings for presentation at conferences and for publication in journals. Much of the research is conducted by graduate students, so as their supervisor Kimura needs to meet and confer with them over every step, and in this way the students receive training in academic research and writing.

The bottom line to Kimura: “A super day is one in which we discover something new from our findings. Looking at data is what I like most about my career. What I like least is the time spent preparing lectures, because this eats into research time.”

Career ideas:

  • Counseling (such as career, emotional, marital, teen, etc.)
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Experimental Psychology
  • Behavioral modification psychologist
  • Child psychologist
  • Clinical psychologist
  • Cognitive psychologist
  • Developmental psychologist
  • Educational psychologist
  • Engineering psychologist
  • Industrial psychologist
  • Neuropsychologist
  • Organizational psychologist
  • Military psychologist
  • Psychotherapist
  • Research psychologist
  • School psychologist
  • Social psychologist
  • Sport psychologist
  • Vocational psychologist

The Person

Birthdate
February 15, 1933
Birthplace
Winnipeg, Manitoba
Residence
Vancouver, BC
Family Members
  • Mother : Sophia N. Hogg
  • Father: William J. Hogg
  • Daughter : Charlotte
Personality
Independent, non-conformist, self-assured
Favorite Music
Blue Rodeo, R & B, Rolling Stones, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart
Other Interests
Political Activism
Title
Visiting Professor
Office
Department of Psychology, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC
Status
Semi-retired
Degrees
  • BA (psychology), McGill University, 1956
  • MA (experimental psychology), McGill, 1957
  • PhD (physiological psychology), McGill, 1961
Awards
  • Canadian Psychology Association award for Distinguished Contributions to Canadian Psychology as a Science, 1985
  • Canadian Association for Women in Science award for Outstanding Scientific Achievement, 1986
  • Fellow, American Psychological Society
  • Fellow, Royal Society of Canada
  • John Dewan Award, The Ontario Mental Health Foundation, 1992
  • Honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University, 1993
  • Sterling Prize in support of controversy, Simon Fraser University, 2000
  • Furedy Academic Freedom Award, Society for Academic Freedom & Scholarship, 2002
  • Distinguished Researcher, Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science, 2005
  • Kisler Prize, 2006
Mentor
Donald O. Hebb and Brenda Milner, McGill psychology professors who taught her to think of behaviour in terms of the nervous system.
Last Updated
April 5, 2015
Popularity
75820
Personal Webpage Profile viewed 75820 times

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question #1458

I am a firearms Instructor for Law Enforcement Officers. I am teaching a course on training male and female officers. I am curious if there are learning differences between males and females and if so, would you recommend various styles or techniques that are beneficial for each sex? (i.e.visual, auditory, kinetic?)

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