LOS ANGELES — `NO doctor knows enough to say that hope can't be real,'' says Norman Cousins. ``The physician is discovering that his options may be wider than he thought.... He is more than a dispenser of medications. He must administer to the human spirit and not leave that to a minister or rabbi.''
Mr. Cousins is a soft-spoken man with sturdy ideas. The longtime editor of the Saturday Review is not so much a critic of the medical profession as a jostler of some long-entrenched medical practices. He constantly challenges his colleagues here at the medical school at the University of California, Los Angeles, to broaden their horizons to include a nontraditional approach to healing.
``A physician must respect what he does not know,'' said Cousins in an interview. ``Science should not be used as a barrier to the ability to recognize what we don't know,'' he insists. ``Words like science, philosophy, and religion carry connotations of compartmentalization.''
``What we are trying to do is to get the best out of ourselves,'' Cousins adds. ``Put human uniqueness to work to better the human situation,'' he counsels. ``We have the gift of life and intelligence... [and] it's a great gift.''
Cousins' work at the medical center here deals with a relatively new branch of medicine - psychoneuroimmunology - which he defines as ``interactions between the brain, the endocrine system, and the immune system.'' He believes that a seriously ill patient, or even one diagnosed as terminally ill, responds positively to ``hope, faith, and love.'' He points to instances where these concepts have helped to delay, or reverse, a death verdict.
Cousins' thesis is: ``Don't deny the diagnosis, but defy what is supposed to happen!'' In his book, ``Head First: The Biology of Hope,'' he faults the medical profession for being too quick to disparage or discredit personal reports or ``anecdotes'' about healing. ``Despite the aversion of doctors to anecdotes,'' Cousins says, ``they frequently draw upon individual experiences. Indeed, medical students are told by their professors that they will learn at least as much from their patients as they will learn from their textbooks.''
The Cousins approach to healing is not a religious one. But he doesn't discount the value of prayer in effecting recovery from disease. ``The spiritual process of prayer establishes composure, peacefulness, resolve, and frees the individual from torment,'' he says.
Cousins talks about children and healing - pointing out that infants and youngsters have the ``advantage of not being cluttered with negative experiences.''
``Parents who deal with a seriously ill child must take care about flashing the wrong signals - such as approaching the bedside with terror in their eyes,'' he warns.
He suggests that ``the thought or demeanor of a parent can represent a big difference in the healing of a child.''
Cousins draws the conclusion that there is a ``tendency on society's part to believe that spiritual or intangible factors have no value.'' But he contends that when people are challenged they instinctively ``look to a higher source of power.''
``Prayer is a magnificent antidote to panic and depression. Prayer is the way to see options that might not exist otherwise,'' he says.