Music makes us feel. In movies, at concerts. Even when we least expect it, like when that certain song calls—without our consent—a lover, a family member, a long-past moment into the visceral present, still aching or rejoicing with the original emotion. 

A good book or movie can carry us away, too. But there’s a unique power in our response to music. That’s because music reaches deeper physical systems more efficiently than other types of art, says Valorie Salimpoor, PhD, a neuroscientist who for the past decade has studied music’s effect on the brain. Music imprints and locks itself deep into your emotional memory, she says, so when it carries you away, it often takes you somewhere you’ve already been.

Using brain imaging techniques, Salimpoor found that music triggers extreme emotions by targeting the dopamine rewards system—an ancient mechanism in the brain that has evolved to reinforce behaviors like eating and having sex, highly satisfying activities worth repeating. Pleasure is the driver, nourishment and continuance of the species the targeted byproducts. These are activities with survival value, and survival value is precisely where dopamine does its work.

“It’s the drive that moves you,” Salimpoor says. Food and sex don’t just appear, she explains. “You have to go out and get them, so there has to be that anticipation, that excitement about seeking these behaviors.” Dopamine excites the hunt more than the prize. (Different chemicals release during the actual enjoyment of something.)

Music triggers dopamine through pattern recognition and expectation. Salimpoor calls the brain a “prediction machine,” and because music is a complex combination of patterns—rhythmic, harmonic and melodic—“the most evolved and complex parts of your brain get activated when you’re listening to music.” The biggest dopamine rushes come when musical patterns are established and then varied, or through the delayed gratification of a postponed resolution.

This is surprising because music has no known survival value, Salimpoor says. But surely our physiology can’t be wrong, right? Asked if there is something more mystical at play, the scientist pauses, clears her throat. “I try to put the science into the mystery,” she says. “There still are some mysteries, like, where did this come from? Why is it that every single culture has somehow developed music?”