Here's Why You Get Emotional Chills

There are certain pieces of art that are so beautiful to me that they give me the sensation of having chills run down my back. These include: the sweeping orchestral finale to Swan Lake, the perfect ending to Casablanca (and the La Marseillaise scene, of course), The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and the conclusion to City Lights (OK, clearly I have a soft spot for good endings). Sometimes, when you're lucky, this sensation is also replicated in everyday life — when you see the sky filled with stars, or hold your baby sibling for the first time, or have a first kiss.

Apparently emotional chills are an incredibly common (but special and treasured and meaningful!) feeling. For instance, research shows that 50 percent of us get these kinds of chills when listening to music. But why do we get those feelings? What possible evolutionary advantage do we get from feeling cold when we see something beautiful?

It turns out that there are a few theories, actually. For starters, when we interact with something pleasurable, we get a rush of dopamine in our brain. But if the pleasure of a dopamine rush is delayed — if a certain note in a song is withheld, or the scene ends on a bittersweet note — the dopamine continues to build up until the payoff comes through. That's why on Adele's "Someone Like You," the appoggiatura — that small vocal dip and adjustment when Adele sings "you" in the chorus — is what happens around the time you start to lose it.

According to Mental Floss:

You can feel chills from any genre, whether it’s Mozart, Madonna, tango, or techno. It’s the structure—not the style — that counts. Goosebumps most often occur when something unexpected happens: A new instrument enters, the form shifts, the volume suddenly dims. It’s all about the element of surprise.

But there are other, contributing factors as well. For instance, we get chills most often when confronted with art that's sad or bittersweet. According to research from neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, this is because we feel a split-second of fear when we are confronted with sad art. We feel the loss that the song, poem, movie scene, or painting is describing — but then our brains tell us that there's no actual danger to us, that what we're experiencing is a work of fiction removed from ourselves. As Psychology Today writes, this is consistent with our idea of awe as a combination of fear and joy — a combination of sympathy and remove, of wonder and terror.

So there you have it: That's why you get a chill whenever you experience something beautiful. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some music to go listen to.

Images: Nickolai Kashirin/Flickr