Understanding the Air Guitar Itch

05/16/2011 05:19 am ET | Updated Jul 16, 2011

I had a few musical experiences over the past couple of weeks that helped to highlight the deep relationship between body and mind. First, I went to see the great young blues guitarist and singer Jonny Lang. I was sitting in the balcony of the new ACL Live theater in downtown Austin, so I had a view not only of Lang and his band but also of the crowd. During every screaming guitar solo, a few hundred air guitarists followed along, shredding their imaginary instruments. Of course, there were a few renegades playing air drums, and at least one air bassist in the crowd that I saw.

The second musical experience came during a concert by Austin's Grammy-winning Grupo Fantasma. Throughout the show, the lead singer José Galeano and his band encouraged the audience to clap along with the many different rhythms. Judging from the pounding sound of clapping hands, most of the audience was only too happy to take the suggestion. By the end of the concert, there was a great feeling of unity in the crowd at Austin's historic Paramount Theater.

What do these two concerts have to say about mind and body?

The air guitarists at Jonny Lang's show were just demonstrating the importance of the body in thinking. Psychologists Henk Aarts, Peter Gollwitzer and Ran Hassin have demonstrated that when you see someone performing an action, you end up wanting to do it as well. They call this transfer of actions from one person to another "goal contagion." So, just watching a great guitar solo increases your desire to do the same thing.

On top of that, lots of work shows that you try to understand what is happening around you by figuring out how you would perform the same action. One reason why it is so hard to watch contortionists at the circus, for example, is because you can almost feel the pain you would experience if you tried to make the same movements they are.

As an example of this work, studies by Sian Beilock (author of the book "Choke") and sports psychologist Rob Gray brought skilled baseball players into a lab. They tried to hit baseballs in a simulator in which virtual balls were pitched at them and they swung with a real bat. The simulator could determine whether the swing would make contact with the pitch and where the ball would go if hit that way. The batters were told to try to hit the ball straight over second base and into center field.

Before each pitch, the players either saw the words "left," "center" or "right," or they saw a ball flying from home plate into left, center or right field. Seeing the words had no effect on the players, but seeing the ball flying out to one of the fields made players more likely to hit the next pitch and also made them more likely to hit the pitch to the same field as the ball they just saw. The idea is that the skilled players were understanding the event of a ball flying into the outfield in part by preparing to perform an action that would make that happen. So, the mind and body are connected.

And finally, why did Grupo Fantasma make the audience feel so connected to each other? Obviously, great music can make people feel better. And there is good evidence that fast tempos also elevate people's mood. On top of that, though, the clapping helped a lot. Studies by Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath demonstrate that when people perform rhythmic movements together, it increases of their feeling of unity as a group. One reason why armies have soldiers march together and religious groups have congregants say prayers in unison is that it helps people to feel more connected to the other people in their group.

The next time you find yourself at a great concert, let your inner air musician fly. You're just reflecting the way your body wants to understand the music. And when the band tells you to clap, join in. You'll end up feeling much closer to everyone else in the crowd.