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Some people report sensing a flowery smell in some places or situations in which there are no flowers present. Those sensations are sometimes related to religious experiences.

There are also claims that the sensation has no scientific explanation.

The fragrance of roses and the smelling of roses is frequently mentioned in records of mystical experiences. How to explain it? I am not sure if there is a scientific answer. I haven't seen any, not so far.
(source Catholic Web: Smelling Roses--What is the meaning? )

or that is supernatural in origin:

I too experienced the scent of roses. [text skipped] it impacted me so much that I KNEW it was something supernatural.
(source Catholic Answers Forum: Smelling roses & Mary's presence)

What physical, psychological and social reasons are used for explaining such a sensation from a scientific viewpoint?

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Just for measure, olfactory hallucinations (sometimes called phantosmia) are common before certain types of migraine or seizures. If the seizure occurs in the temporal lobe, patients often describe having religious visions. These are both documented medical/neurological phenomena which can be verified. –  Monkey Tuesday Apr 19 '11 at 19:01
    
Removed comment thread about previous version; reopened as it's now fine. –  Ebenezer Sklivvze Apr 20 '11 at 13:29
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Those are hallucinations. You can have all sorts of sensual hallucinations: visual, audible, smelly, etc. . –  Bogdan0x400 Apr 20 '11 at 13:32
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Do hallucinations appear more frequently in religious settings? If so, why? If not, do religious people just tend to interpret their perceptions differently? What is the medical explanation for hallucinations? –  ipavlic Apr 20 '11 at 13:39
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Imagining something is a hallucination by itself. Religious people imagine lots of things. –  Bogdan0x400 Apr 20 '11 at 13:43

1 Answer 1

It is a well known fact that religious experiences and olfactory hallucinations are related to epilepsy or seizure of the temporal lobe.

References:

  • Temporal lobe signs and reports of subjective paranormal experiences in a normal population: a replication.

    7 [cases, n.d.r.] were direct temporal lobe signs that implied deepened affect, auditory-vestibular experiences (vibrations, hearing one's name called), olfactory auras, perseveration ("forced" thinking), depersonalization, and sense of the personal. Five items involved beliefs about exotic phenomena or philosophical ideas. Only one item was from a control cluster. These results support the hypothesis that mystical or paranormal experiences are associated with transient electrical foci within the temporal lobe of the human brain.

  • The neuropsychiatry of limbic and subcortical disorders By Stephen Salloway, Paul Malloy, Jeffrey L. Cummings, p. 198 lists a series of saints/prophets and their possible diagnosis.

  • The Limbic System and the Soul: Evolution and the Neuroanatomy of Religious Experience, R. Joseph

    These behaviors and beliefs are related to activation of the amygdala, hippocampus, and temporal lobe, which are responsible for religious, spiritual, and mystical trancelike states, dreaming, astral projection, near-death and out-of-body experiences, and the hallucination of ghosts, demons, angels, and gods. Abraham, Moses, Muhammad, and Jesus Christ, and others who have communed with angels or gods display limbic system hyperactivity, whereas patients report religious hallucinations or out-of-body experiences when limbic structures are stimulated or excessively activated. It is postulated that limbic and temporal lobe structures account for the sexual and violent aspects of religious behavior and also serve as a “transmitter to God,” and that the evolution of these structures made spiritual experience possible.

Another well known cause of olfactory hallucinations is schizophrenia, which is sometimes related to strange or extreme religious behaviour.

References:

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